According to a BBC report, the Iranian Navy has seized an American cargo ship at sea, with 34 crew members aboard, purportedly for “trespassing on Iran’s territorial waters.”
The commandeered vessel was taken to the port of Bandar Abbas, according to Iranian media reports. The BBC notes that the incident has not yet been officially confirmed by either Iranian or American officials; everything seems to be emanating from Iran’s state-run news agency at the moment.
According to Michel Ghandour, a journalist for Alhurra, American officials have denied that the ship came from the United States, stating instead that it is flying the flag of the Marshall Islands and has no confirmed Americans aboard.
— Michel Ghandour (@michelghandour) April 28, 2015
NBC News reports that senior American officials have also told the network the ship belongs to the Marshall Islands, according to its flag, and that there is no evidence of any American ship being diverted to Iran. The network adds that reports also claim Iran shot at the ship before seizing it. CNN’s Jim Sciutto is now also confirming the Marshall Islands claim, adding that the ship sent a distress call to the American navy:
According to the U.S. Department of State, “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.” While the Marshall Islands is a sovereign nation, its national security is fully a United States matter.
The incident follows a tense near-encounter between American warships and Iranian vessels near Yemen earlier this month. The United States military sent the USS Theodore Roosevelt to patrol waters off the coast of Yemen on April 20, making that ship the most potent military presence in the region. The Pentagon told reports it was sent there to protect cargo ships from being swept into the ongoing civil war in Yemen, and Iran responded to the move by removing some of its warships from the region.
Update, 11:45 AM EST: According to some sources who were tracking the ship, Iran’s claim that the Maersk Tigris was in Iranian territorial waters – quickly supported by the Obama Administration – is false:
Maersk Tigris was clearly in international waters and diverted by Iranian navy pic.twitter.com/3hVbLy0KlG
— Patrick Megahan (@PatMegahan) April 28, 2015
Update, 12:00 PM EST: The Washington Times summarizes what is known so far about the incident:
The Pentagon said at least five Iranian patrol vessels approached the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris cargo ship at 5:00 am eastern time as it was transiting the Straight of Hormuz and directed the ship to proceed further into Iranian waters.
When the ship’s master declined, the Iranian ship fired shots across the bow of the cargo vessel, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said. After shots were fired, the ship proceeded into Iranian waters near the vicinity of Larak Island. It was boarded by members of the Iranian military and is now unable to leave Iranian waters.
The New York Times reports that the U.S. Navy destroyer Farragut is on its way to the area, and was about sixty miles out as of noon Eastern time. American aircraft are also said to be “standing by to monitor the situation.”
Update, 2:30 PM EST: The Marshall Islands seems to expect help from the Obama Administration in recovering their captured ship from Iran, based on comments from the charge d’affairs at the Islands embassy in Washington, Junior Aini. “The United States has the full security responsibility over the islands and for the defense of the islands, this is what our treaty says,” he told Bloomberg News, citing the 1986 accords, which actively prohibit the Islands from taking any action that would interfere with U.S. responsibility.
The Marshall Islands might have to wait a while for that help, as the State Department is presently refusing to condemn Iran’s seizure of the ship.
In a side note, Aini professed himself surprised by Iran’s actions, and mentioned that he learned about the incident by watching Fox News.