WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – The United States and Iran edged closer to confrontation in the waters of the Persian Gulf this week after the Islamic Republic's navy surrounded an American freighter and fired warning shots at another vessel, capturing its crew and impounding the ship.
Iranian officials announced April 30 they had seized the Maersk Tigris and detained its crew over what the government called a financial dispute stemming from a legal case in 2005. Maersk, a Dutch-owned shipping conglomerate, said it had agreed to pay $163,000 in the settlement reached between the company and the Iranian government. The Iranian government says it is owed more money.
Iran said the 24 members of the Maersk Tigris crew are well and have access to legal representation and diplomatic channels. The crew members, however, are in a sort of legal limbo. According to Maersk, it neither owns the Marshall Islands-flagged ship nor employs the crew.
Last week, Iranian naval vessels surrounded a U.S. flagged cargo ship in the same area, prompting concerns that Iran was attempting to coax American forces into a confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz, an area over which Iran has long sought influence. Much of the world's oil commerce flows through the strait.
The U.S. government sees the detention of the crew and the interference with shipping traffic in the narrow strait as intentionally provocative. In a statement released by the Department of Defense following the incident, the Pentagon said "the Republic of the Marshall Islands is a sovereign nation for which the United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense under the terms of an amended compact that entered into force in 2004."
After the incident with the Maersk-Tigris and the obstruction of the American vessel, the U.S. Navy has begun to escort all U.S. flagged vessels through the strait.
Army Col. Steve Warren said in a press briefing at the Pentagon April 30 that all ships sail through the Strait of Hormuz under the internationally-recognized doctrine of "innocent passage." The doctrine protects shipping from interference, even within Iranian territorial waters, as long as the ships are carrying no weapons.
In Tehran, Iran's Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said April 30 the Iranian Navy was operating in the area to "protect Iranian trade vessels against pirates."