WASHINGTON – The Iran Revolutionary Guard naval patrol intercepted a U.S.-flagged ship five days before firing shots on the Marshall Island-flagged Maersk Tigris and seizing it, representing what U.S. Defense Department officials call a “pattern of behavior” as Washington and Tehran seek to finalize a nuclear agreement.
At an off-camera news conference, Pentagon spokesman U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren confirmed that in addition to the widely reported Maersk Tigris incident Tuesday, the Revolutionary Guard sought to board the U.S.-flagged Maersk Kensington in international waters last Friday.
Iran claims much of the waters within the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which some 30 percent of the world’s oil and other trade traverse, is within its territory.
In response to WND questioning, Warren said four Iranian patrol boats approached the Kensington, came astern of the cargo container ship and followed it for some 20 minutes in actions that the master of the Kensington interpreted as “aggressive.”
Warren said there was no U.S. Navy involvement at the time. After the incident, he said the ship’s captain filed a report with U.S. Navy Command.
Amid the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, Warren said it is unknown why the Iranians “are operating this way.’
“We certainly call on them to respect all of the internationally established rules of freedom of navigation, Law of the Sea, to which (Iran) is a signatory and under established protocols,” he said.
Warren said that at no time did the Iranians attempt to board the Kensington. He also didn’t know what cargo either the Kensington or the Tigris was carrying that would have warranted Iranian focus.
He said, because the Tigris was a Marshall Islands-registered cargo ship, the U.S. has decided, following consultation with authorities there, that it would be subject to U.S. protection.
However, it has now been docked for some three days at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.
Warren indicated the U.S. is taking a cautious approach in its handling of the Tigris seizure.
The Iranians apparently forced the Tigris into Iranian territorial waters by firing shots across its bow.
After the seizure, the U.S. Navy moved the guided missile warship U.S.S. Farragut into waters off the Iranian coast along with three coastal patrol ships, the Thunderbolt, Fire Bolt and Typhoon.
To date, Warren said, the Farragut has taken no action on the Tigris.
A compact with the Marshall Islands, Warren said, includes a provision to protect its ships that stipulates “the United States has full discretion on what actions to take.”
Any “rescue” of the ship, Warren said, would require a “presidential decision.”
Asked if the Tigris had been searched, Warren said to ask the Iranians.
“Certainly if the Tigris were sinking, the Farragut would render aid,” suggesting that under international maritime law, the U.S. would be authorized to enter Iranian territorial waters to the Port of Bandar Abbas.
A reporter asked Warren if the seizure of a ship by Iran constituted distress, and, if so, why the Farragut wouldn’t go in and take back the ship.
After a long pause, he asked, “Any other questions?”
While the Tigris is a Marshall Island-flagged vessel, it is owned by the Danish shipping company Maersk, which said the crew is safe and “in good spirits.”
The Danish Foreign Ministry is said to be in contact with Iran but still doesn’t know the reason for the seizure.
Warren said the Defense Department has not been in contact with Iran regarding the ship.
A request to the State Department to find out whether it had been in contact with Iran on the vessel’s seizure went unanswered.
Warren said the Iranians have given several different reasons for their actions.
“They initially said that it was some sort of security inspection. Later they said there were some economic reasons. So, the Iranians have not been clear why they have done this.”
Warren said he wouldn’t “speculate” as to why the Revolutionary Guard targeted the ships.
“Certainly, (the Iranians) have harassed two ships that have tried to traverse the strait,” indicating a “pattern within a matter or four or five days, so that it certainly created a situation where maritime cargo vessels presumably would have to consider the risks of traversing that strait.”
Division in Revolutionary Guard?
It is significant that it was the Revolutionary Guard that seized the vessel, reflecting a possible division within the IRGC itself on the outcome of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West.
There are “key forces inside” the IRGC with their own political, security, economic and ideological goals, wrote Morteza Kazemian, an Iranian journalist and political activist.
“And while these elements are formally under the umbrella of the IRGC and follow the guidance of the absolute leader of the country, they have their own distinct goals and paths,” he said.
An element within the IRGC, Hazemain said, opposes the nuclear framework agreement.
It “will not support a nuclear resolution because of the vast benefits it derives from the economic sanctions against the country through its vast resources such as shipping ports, airports, illegal trading channels, security and military associations.”
“Members of the group have their eyes fixed on their economic interests and have no concerns or priorities about the regime or ideological preferences,” he said. “They however oppose an agreement under the cover of defending the regime and the revolution, without hinting at the main reason for their opposition.”