April 28, 2015

Iranian seizure of the Maersk Tigris - what are they thinking?

Route track of the Maersk Tigris and location report in Bandar Abbas
Click on image for larger view

Iran's seizure of the Marshall Islands-flagged container ship in what the ship's owners claim are international waters in the Strait of Hormuz raises a series of questions about Iranian motives, political considerations and possibly a desire for revenge following what might be viewed as a loss of face over the situation in Yemen. It also may indicate the Iranian leadership's assessment of the American Administration's willingness to confront Tehran in the midst of the ongoing nuclear agreement negotiations between Iran and the group known as the P5+1.*

According to press reports, Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Navy gunboats approached the Maersk Tigris, a container ship traversing the Persian Gulf through international waters or a section of Iranian territorial waters through which "innocent passage" is protected by international law. After the Iranian gunboats fired a warning shot across the ship's bow, the captain complied with demands and followed the gunboats to the Bandar Abbas Anchorage. The above images show the vessel's track as generated by the ship's navigational system and in which the ship appears to be in international waters.

Here is where this incident gets interesting. The Maersk Tigris is flagged in the Marshall Islands. The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is a U.S. protectorate - its security and defense are the responsibility of the United States based on a Compact of Free Association agreement. If actions are to be taken in defense of the RMI or its interests - such as one of its flagged vessels - it will be the armed forces of the United States, in this case the United States Navy, that will take those actions. That said, the Marshall Islands are a common "flag of convenience" country and have no real relationship to the vessel.

One has to wonder if the IRGC Navy - a smaller and more aggressive military force than the regular Iranian Navy - chose this particular ship because of the rather obscure defense and security arrangements between the Marshal Islands and the United States, or because they honestly believed the ship had strayed into Iranian waters.

On first blush, I would go with the latter - I don't normally associate the IRGC Navy as being politically astute enough for the former, but they may have been following directions from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, who are astute enough. Given the location of the vessel as indicated by the ship's automated tracker, it would appear that the ship was specifically targeted for who it is, not where it was.

I do not believe the timing of this action to be mere coincidence. The Iranians suffered a loss of face last week as they were forced to back down and recall a convoy of cargo ships suspected of carrying additional or advanced weapons to the Iranian-back Houthi group in Yemen. The United States had moved the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (nicknamed "the big stick") and supporting vessels into the Gulf of Aden to prevent the Iranian ships from entering Yemeni territorial waters.

I think there was surprise on the part of the Iranian leadership that the United States was serious about preventing the ships from delivering their cargo. To them, the Americans were being uncharacteristically stalwart after caving in on virtually every Iranian demand to date in the nuclear negotiations.

Assuming that the Iranians have seized a commercial ship flying the flag of a country whose defense and security are the responsibility of the United States in flagrant violation of the concept of "freedom of navigation" so valued by the United States, President Obama must decide what actions are appropriate.

Once again, the Iranians have maneuvered him into a position in which he must act as he did in the case of the Iranian cargo ships, or do nothing and appear as weak as he has in his other dealings with Iran - the repeated concessions on the nuclear talks are a prime example. There is also the Administration's unwillingness to engage the Iranians on a number of Americans literally being held hostage in the Islamic Republic, including a former U.S. Marine and a Washington Post journalist.

Again, the timing is not a coincidence. President Obama is scheduled to meet shortly with America's key Gulf allies and attempt to convince them that the United States remains concerned about - and more importantly, committed to - their security. The numerous concessions on the Iranian nuclear program have seriously undermined America's credibility on this subject.

It will be interesting to watch the Administration try to spin away this dangerous action in the Strait of Hormuz. It is a test of just how much the President wants a nuclear deal with the Iranians, how much he values the alliance with the Gulf Arabs and how much he respects our international agreement with the Marshall Islands.

Your move, Mr. President.


* The P5+1 are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) plus Germany.