An Iranian naval vessel. (AP/Fars News Agency, Mahdi Marizad) (AP/Fars News Agency, Mahdi Marizad)
Iranian warship

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Iran blatantly breached international maritime conventions by raiding a cargo ship and forcing it to an Iranian port, but the US refuses to condemn Tehran for the aggression as it aims to reach a nuclear deal by June 30.

Iranian forces on Tuesday fired warning shots across the bridge of the MV Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo vessel, as it was traversing the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranians boarded and directed it toward the Iranian mainland, a Pentagon official said. No one was injured.

The incident, which prompted the US Navy to dispatch a destroyer and plane in response, comes at a critical time in Tehran’s relations with the US, which is negotiating a final deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

In another incident, US Navy officials said Tuesday that several Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Navy vessels had surrounded a US-flagged cargo ship, the Maersk Kensington, last Friday as it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz. No shots were fired, the Iranian vessels broke off contact, and the cargo ship proceeded without further incident.

US Navy

US Navy ship. (AP/Bullit Marquez)

In Tuesday’s incident, the intercepted ship was traveling through the narrow Strait, which is technically Iranian and Omani territorial waters, but under international agreement it is open to foreign ships making innocent passage, explained Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. It was not clear whether the ship had strayed off course into coastal waters not protected by that agreement.

The master of the MV Maersk Tigris initially refused an order to move further into Iranian waters, but after the warning shots were fired, the vessel complied, Warren said. The cargo ship was directed to waters near Larak Island, located off the major Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

Iranian state television reported that only 24 crew – hailing from Britain, Bulgaria, Romania and Myanmar – were on board the vessel, adding that the ship was seized based on a court order due to unspecified violations.

Iranian officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

A History of Iranian Maritime Belligerence

The Strait of Hormuz is the route for about a fifth of the world’s oil.

Iran had previously threatened to block the strait, a move that could spark a military conflict in the Gulf. American and allied naval forces routinely patrol the strait and have conducted military drills aimed at countering threats such as sea mines, which Iran could use to close the waterway.

Tehran frequently conducts military exercises in and around the strait. Large-scale, live-fire naval drills in February saw Revolutionary Guard forces assault a replica of a US aircraft carrier built in a Bandar Abbas shipyard.

“It is inappropriate” for the Iranians to have fired warning shots across the ship’s bridge in Tuesday’s circumstances, Warren said, adding that it was too early to know whether the Iranian intervention amounted to a violation of the freedom of navigation through a waterway heavily used by international shipping.

In 2007, Revolutionary Guard forces captured 15 British sailors and marines from a frigate in the Gulf, accusing them of operating in Iranian waters. They were released less than two weeks later.

Commenting on the incident, US State Department spokesperson Jeff Rathke refused to condemn Iran’s hostile action, saying that they were still “collecting information.” Neither would he define the incident as an act of piracy or violent aggression.

“I’m not going to apply an adjective to it right now,” Rathke stated. “I don’t have further reaction at this point.”

The Obama administrationd appears to be selectively ignoring Iran’s aggressive actions in order not to jeopardize a potential nuclear deal with Iran.

By: AP and United with Israel Staff

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