Ships from U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain have begun accompanying U.S.-flagged maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, Defense Department officials said.
Sufficient U.S. naval forces are assigned to the command to meet the requirements of the accompanying mission, officials said, adding that Navcent will coordinate with shipping-industry representatives to ensure the operations go smoothly and efficiently.
The mission was prompted by two incidents this week in the Strait of Hormuz in which Iranian navy patrol vessels harassed commercial motor vessels traversing the strait.
On April 24, four Iranian patrol boats approached the U.S.-flagged merchant ship Maersk Kensington, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said during an April 29 briefing.
“The boats came astern of the Kensington and followed her for 15 or 20 minutes in actions that the Kensington’s master interpreted as aggressive,” he added.
There was no U.S. military involvement at the time, but after the incident, the ship's master filed a report with Navcent, Warren said.
“It's difficult to know exactly why the Iranians are operating this way,” Warren said. “We certainly call on them to respect all the internationally established rules of freedom of navigation, the law of the sea to which they are a signatory, and other established protocols.”
Then on April 28 at about 2:05 a.m. EST, Iranian patrol vessels approached the M/V Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo vessel, Warren said in a briefing that day.
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 security compact that entered into force in 2004.
The United States and the Marshall Islands have full diplomatic relations, according to the U.S. State Department, and the security compact between the two nations includes matters related to vessels flying the Marshallese flag.
The Maersk Tigris was in Iranian territorial waters that also contain internationally recognized commercial shipping lanes, Warren said, adding that the Strait of Hormuz is in Iranian territorial waters, which is within 12 miles of the Iranian coast. But because the narrow strait is recognized as containing international shipping lanes, he added, the principle of “innocent passage” is applied, so ships that abide by international rules of the sea are authorized to pass through the strait.
Warren said no Americans are among the 30 or so people aboard the Maersk Tigris.
The Tigris was transiting inbound, or north, in the Strait of Hormuz, between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea. The strait is one of the world’s major strategic choke points, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“The ship's master was contacted [by one of the Iranian ships] and directed to proceed further into Iranian territorial waters,” Warren said during an April 28 briefing. “He declined, and one of the [Iranian] craft fired shots across the bridge of the Maersk Tigris.”
Afterward, the master complied with the Iranian demand and motored into Iranian waters near Larak Island, Warren said. Larak Island is off the coast of Iran in the Persian Gulf. The master then issued a distress call.
Boarding the Tigris
Warren said initial reports indicated that members of the Iranian navy had boarded the Tigris. Navcent, having picked up the distress signal, directed the USS Farragut, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, to proceed to the nearest location to the Maersk Tigris, Warren said. Navcent also directed a Navy maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft to observe the interaction between the Maersk vessel and the Iranian craft, he added.
The Tigris’s destination, according to a marine-traffic website, was Jebel Ali, a port town 22 miles southwest of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
Maritime Security Operations
During an April 29 briefing, Warren said the USS Farragut was operating along with three U.S. Navy Cyclone-class coastal patrol ships -- the USS Typhoon, the USS Thunderbolt and the USS Firebolt -- all stationed in Manama, Bahrain.
The ships are conducting maritime security operations, maintaining continual U.S. presence and supporting the monitoring of the Maersk Tigris, which is at anchor near Larak Island and Bandar Abbas, he said.
“As is always the case, these assets give commanders options,” Warren said, adding that the U.S. government is in discussions with the Marshall Islands on the way ahead.
Warren said the Navy ships’ mission is to conduct maritime security operations, “but what they’re doing is keeping an eye on things.”
Traversing the Strait
All of the ships are operating in the Persian Gulf, in the Strait of Hormuz, near where the Maersk Tigris incident occurred, he added. They are close enough to the Maersk Tigris, Warren said, “that they'll be able to respond if a response is required.”
“Two [incidents] within four or five days has certainly created a situation where maritime cargo vessels presumably would have to consider the risks of traversing that strait,” he added.
Warren said that Iran's motive is not clear to the Defense Department and that DoD is not in contact with the Iranian government.
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)