Wednesday, April 29, 2015

  • Wednesday, April 29, 2015
  • Elder of Ziyon
Map depicting the MV Maersk Tigris’ original path toward the UAE and diversion after being intercepted by the IRGCN. (Source: marinetraffic.com)
The best roundup of what happened yesterday in the Persian Gulf comes from the (Asia/Pacific) Diplomat site:

The shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz have long been highlighted as a potential flashpoint amid the simmering geopolitical tensions between the United States and Iran. Its waters are of particular geostrategic significance given that over a third of the world’s petroleum traded by sea passes through the region. Iran has repeatedly emphasized its dominance over the waters, threatening to blockade the strait in a time of crisis. Today, we saw an acute manifestation of Iran’s audacity when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) seized and escorted the Marshall Islands-flagged MV Maersk Tigris, a shipping vessel belonging to Denmark’s A.P. Moller–Maersk Group and chartered by Singapore-based Rickmers Shipmanagement, toward the Iranian port at Bandar Abbas. The incident sparked a response by U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), which ordered the USS Farragut, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that was 60 miles from the point of the Tigris’ interception, to respond to the vessel’s distress signal.

Saudi Arabia-backed, UAE-based Al Arabiya was among the first sources to break the news in English. It reported that Iran had fired warning shots (true) and seized a U.S.-flagged vessel (false). Nevertheless, the initial reports sparked considerable online panic at the prospect that the United States and Iran could be headed for a major confrontation. The report also noted that the crew of the ship numbered 34 and were American. Needless to say, U.S. citizens being held against their will by Iran hits a raw nerve for the United States given certain historical events. We’ve since learned, thanks to Reuters, that the Tigris’ has a crew of 24, most of whom hail “from Eastern Europe and Asia.” In the process of the seizure, the IRGCN fired across the bow of the ship. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told CNN that “the master was contacted and directed to proceed further into Iranian territorial waters. He declined and one of the IRGCN craft fired shots across the bridge of the Maersk Tigris.”

In the wake of the Tigris incident, CNN learned that a U.S.-flagged ship had been intercepted by the IRGCN – on Friday, April 24, four whole days before the Tigris incident. Reportedly, the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet issued a notice to commercial ships to exercise caution in the Persian Gulf and the Hormuz Strait following the incident.

The Marshall Islands isn’t normally a country whose name you’ll read at the center of a major international incident, but the fact that the Tigris was flagged with the country’s flag complicated the situation. After gaining independence from the United States in 1986, the Marshall Islands enjoys pseudo-protectorate status under the United States’ security umbrella. As per the Compact of Free Association governing the relationship between the United States and the Marshall Islands, the United States “has full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters in or relating to the Republic of the Marshall Islands.” The U.S. Defense Department’s lawyers have determined, however, that for the purposes of the Tigris‘ capture by the IRGCN, the U.S. has no obligation to respond or come to the defense of the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel. (Eli Lake and Josh Rogin have more on the Marshall Islands angle over at Bloomberg View.)
There is a flip side to the US agreement to defend the Marshall Islands - it is that the Marshall Islands cannot defend itself. As a State Department factsheet explains,

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.

 By relying on the US for its defense, it means that if attacked, the tiny country has no alternative means of defense.

Which means that when the Defense Department lawyers say that the Tigris does not fall under that agreement, the Marshall Islands has no recourse. On the contrary - the US would probably act to stop any move by the Marshall Islands to confront Iran militarily.

The symbolism cannot be lost on Israel and the Gulf countries who have been told for decades that the US will defend them against aggression. Here, the US has openly and swiftly signaled that in today's world, such defense is much more rhetoric than reality.

This is all besides the more general promise by the US to keep the shipping lanes to the Gulf open for all that seems to have been significantly weakened..

US allies are being told that they cannot rely on the US anymore and that any assertions to the contrary are just words. America will make noises, for sure - the USS Farragut is just that - but the US  message to its allies is much louder than the message that the destroyer is supposedly making to Iran.



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