Omri Ceren provides this email update on today’s developments in the Persian Gulf, reported in this brief Reuters story:
It’s been a busy two hours, but some clarity is starting to emerge about the Iranian seizure of a cargo vessel in the Strait of Hormuz. The vessel is the M/V Maersk Tigris and sails under a Marshall Islands flag. It was intercepted by Iranian navy patrol crafts earlier today and sent a distress call, and which point it was contacted by US naval assets who streamed to the area to monitor the confrontation. The vessel was ordered to sail into Iranian waters and refused, at which point the Iranians fired shots across her bow, and the master complied. It’s now in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
There is a dispute over whether the M/V Maersk Tigris was in international waters when it was initially intercepted. The Pentagon seems to have told journalists this morning that it was transiting through Iranian territorial waters. Defense analysts are posting maps showing otherwise (https://twitter.com/PatMegahan/status/593073911786377216).
A few things you’re likely to be hearing as the afternoon kicks off:
(1) The U.S. is treaty-bound to defend the security of the Marshall Islands. To what extent will the US be obligated to act in response to functionally unspinnable Iranian aggression? Keep in mind that in two weeks the President will be personally in a room floating security assurances to the Gulf, promising that the U.S. will protect them from future Iranian aggression.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is a sovereign nation. While the government is free to conduct its own foreign relations, it does so under the terms of the Compact. The United States has full authority and responsibility for security and defense of the Marshall Islands, and the Government of the Marshall Islands is obligated to refrain from taking actions that would be incompatible with these security and defense responsibilities. (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/26551.htm)
(2) The administration just wrapped up a week of insisting that under no circumstances would it allow Iran to interfere with shipping in the area. It’s unclear how that can be reconciled with what the Iranians just did.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, April 21: “principal goal of this operation is to maintain freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea… would send a clear signal about our continued insistence about the free flow of commerce and the freedom of movement in the region… this is a clear statement about our commitment to ensuring the free flow of commerce in this important region of the world” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/04/21/press-briefing-press-secretary-josh-earnest-4212015)
State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf, April 21: “I think the Defense Department may have already addressed this in their briefing today, but there were reports about these U.S. ships that have been moved. And I want to be very clear, just so no one has the wrong impression, that they are not there to intercept Iranian ships, to do issues like that; that the purpose of moving them is only to ensure the shipping lanes remain open and safe. I think there was some misreporting and confusion on this, and I just wanted to be very clear.” (http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2015/04/240950.htm)
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren, April 21: “[U.S. warships] are operating [in the Arabian Sea] with a very clear mission to ensure that shipping lanes remain open, to ensure there’s freedom of navigation through those critical waterways, and to help ensure maritime security…By having U.S. ships in the region, we…preserve options should the security situation deteriorate to the point where there is a problem or a threat to freedom of navigation or to the shipping lanes or to overall maritime security.” (http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=128634)
(3) What the hell are the Iranians doing playing chicken with the U.S. Navy on the same day that the full Senate takes up debate on Corker-Menendez? Business Insider’s national security and military editor Armin Rosen had one of the early lines on this:
Whatever else is going on, IRGCN just baited a Burke-class US destroyer into a confrontation in the world’s busiest oil chokepoint (https://twitter.com/ArminRosen/status/593076865922891779)