Iranian warships were enforcing a court order against the owner when they diverted a Marshall Islands-registered vessel to an Iranian port, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif asserted Wednesday, denying any link between the incident and regional tensions.
Zarif also implied that an Iranian-American reporter for The Washington Post who’s facing an espionage trial in Iran was asked to do something by an “overzealous” U.S. operative that was “illegal and dangerous” in return for a U.S. visa for his wife.
“I hope he will be cleared of that charge,” Zarif said of the reporter, Jason Rezaian, whom he called “my friend.”
The U.S.-educated Zarif made his comments in a wide-ranging 90-minute question-and-answer session at New York University on the third day of a visit for a U.N. conference on the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of the global system designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Ironically, some critics charge that Iran, a signatory to the treaty, violated the pact by hiding the country’s program for enriching uranium from U.N. inspectors for 18 years, until an Iranian opposition group disclosed it in 2002.
Zarif spoke a day before Iran was to open negotiations with the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – known as the P5 plus 1 – on a final deal to restrict the Iranian nuclear program and prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons in return for the lifting of devastating economic sanctions. The broad outlines of the agreement were announced April 2.
Zarif said he hoped that a deal would be concluded before a June 30 deadline. On other issues, he criticized rival Saudi Arabia for blocking what he said were four Iranian humanitarian aid flights into war-savaged Yemen.
His appearance came a day after five Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels intercepted a container ship, the Maersk Tigris, and ordered it to follow them toward the Iranian coast. When the master refused, an Iranian vessel fired a warning shot across the ship’s bridge, prompting the master to relent, according to U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East.
The Maersk Tigris was in safe-passage shipping lanes in Iranian territorial waters in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway between Iran and the United Arab Emirates that links the oil-rich Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea. About 30 crew members were aboard the Danish-owned container ship, which is registered in the Marshall Islands.
A U.S. Navy vessel and U.S. aircraft monitored the incident, which underscored tensions in the region over Yemen, where Iran is backing rebel forces under attack by a Saudi-led air campaign, and over Syria, where Saudi Arabia is supporting opposition forces against the Iran-backed Assad regime.
Zarif denied that there were any political motives behind the interception, saying it was to enforce an Iranian court order that the Maersk Tigris’ Danish owner pay damages to a private Iranian firm.
“This ship has had some rather peculiar activity, as I hear from the lawyer of the (Iranian) company that filed a suit against this (Danish) company, I think, some 15 or 16 years ago for evading to pay or to deliver a cargo,” he said. “It has gone through court proceedings in Tehran, based on what I hear from the lawyer . . . for the past 14 years, and there’s a final decision by the court that the ship’s owners have to pay the damages that are incurred by the private company.”
“Simply, our naval forces implemented the decision of the court. It’s a legal case,” he said. “It’s not a security issue or a political issue.”
Iran has no reason to take arbitrary actions that endanger freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, Zarif said, calling the waterway an economic lifeline for his country.
The interception has nothing to do with Yemen, he said in response to a question from the moderator, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States, from which the Marshall Islands gained independence in 1986, was monitoring the situation because it had a “vested interest . . . in preserving the free flow of navigation and free flow of commerce in this sensitive region of the world.”
Earnest, who said it was unclear to the United States why the ship had been intercepted, linked the incident to the nuclear negotiations.
“Our concerns about the interference with the Maersk Tigris would be even more acute if a . . . nuclear-armed Iranian navy were conducting these kinds of intercepts,” he said.
Zarif criticized the Saudi-led air campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, saying it had caused a humanitarian catastrophe in the country, where the United Nations says more than 500 civilians have been killed and some 1,185 have been wounded since March 26.
“We do not believe that you can bombard people into submission,” he said, referring to the Saudi goal of forcing the Houthis into talks with Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who’s taking refuge in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital.
Zarif accused Saudi Arabia of paying “lip service to a cease-fire,” a reference to the resumption of airstrikes a day after Riyadh had announced a cessation of the attacks on April 21. Saudi aircraft had “intercepted and turned back” four Iranian planes carrying badly needed humanitarian aid to Yemen, he said.
In the most recent incident, he said, an “overzealous pilot bombed out of existence” a runway at Sanaa airport to prevent an Iranian flight from landing.
Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia accuses Shiite-Muslim-controlled Tehran of providing arms and advisers to the Houthis, a northern-based movement that’s taken control of much of Yemen.
Zarif also provided more details than previously disclosed by Iranian officials or news reports about Rezaian’s arrest and incarceration last July with his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi. While she was released, Rezaian is facing trial on charges of endangering Iran’s national security, including espionage.
Zarif implied that Rezaian had been asked by someone working for the United States to gather information.
“Unfortunately, your friend and my friend, Jason, is accused of a very serious offense, and I hope that he’s cleared in a court. But he will have to face a court. He is an Iranian citizen,” Zarif said. “It is unfortunate that some overzealous low-level operative tried to take advantage of him, and I don’t go into further details because of that pending case before the court.”
“I hope that he will be cleared of that charge. But the fact is that there are people who take advantage of the needs of someone who tried to get a visa to come to the United States or get a visa for their wife to come to the United States and make demands that are illegal and dangerous and damaging to the professionalism of the journalist,” Zarif continued.
The Washington Post and the U.S. government have denied that Rezaian, 39, who was born in California and holds Iranian and U.S. citizenship, is a U.S. intelligence agent.
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.