The USS Farragut, now patrolling the Strait of Hormuz. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy
NEW YORK, April 30 (UPI) -- U.S. Navy warships will now accompany every American-flagged commercial ship traveling through the Strait of Hormuz after Iranian patrol boats seized a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship, defense officials said Thursday.
A senior U.S. defense official told CNN the Pentagon approved a plan Thursday to keep an armed warship in the narrow channel of water between Iran and Oman at all times a U.S. commercial vessel passes through. The plan isn't meant provoke an international conflict, though.
"This is a way to reduce the risk of confrontation," the official said.
The move comes just days after Iranian Revolutionary Guard ships harassed the U.S.-flagged Maersk Kensington commercial vessel Friday, then seized the Maersk Tigris on Tuesday.
The Maersk Tigris, a cargo ship sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands, was traveling through the Strait to the United Arab Emirates when it was intercepted by five Iranian ships. The cargo ship sent a distress call after shots were fired, the distress signal picked up by the USS Farragut, which was sailing in the area.
The ship was diverted to the nearby Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. About 30 crewmen were aboard the captured ship.
"The master (of the Maersk Tigris) was contacted and directed to proceed further into Iranian territorial waters. He declined and one of the IRGCN (Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy) craft fired shots across the bridge of the Maersk Tigris. The master complied with the Iranian demand and proceeded into Iranian waters IVO (in vicinity of) Larak Island," Pentagon spokesman Col. Rick Warren said.
Iran said its seizure of the Maersk Tigris was a business issue unrelated to military tensions in the region.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, denied there was a political motive behind the capture of the vessel. Speaking Wednesday at New York University, he said the seizure involved an unpaid delivery bill and a claim for payment by an Iranian company against the Dutch ship owner.
"This ship has had some rather peculiar activity, as I hear from the lawyer of the [Iranian] company that filed a suit against this company, I think, some 15 or 16 years ago for evading to pay or to deliver a cargo. It has gone through court proceedings in Tehran, based on what I hear from the lawyer . . . for the past 14 years, and there's a final decision by the court that the ship's owners have to pay the damages that are incurred by the private company. Simply, our naval forces implemented the decision of the court. It's a legal case. It's not a security issue or a political issue," he said.
The incident prompted an increase in patrols by U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday. The USS Farragut, a guided missile destroyer, was dispatched to the area to join three Cyclone-class coastal patrol boats Thunderbolt, Firebolt and Typhoon, and surveillance aircraft.
"What they're doing is keeping an eye on things," Col. Steven Warren, Pentagon spokesman, said of the U.S. vessels when they were first dispatched. "They're in close enough proximity to respond if a response is required."
Warren said the United States is in discussions about the situation with the Marshall Islands, which the United States is obligated to protect under treaty. That obligation includes Marshallese vessels, he said.
He also said Iran's motivations for seizing the Maersk Tigris are "not clear to the Department of Defense.
Some U.S. officials say the seizure might be in retaliation for the United States sending an aircraft carrier to the Arabian Sea near Yemen, The Wall Street Journal reported. A convoy of Iranian ships bound for Yemen -- perhaps to deliver arms to Houthi rebels -- was forced to turn back in mid-April when it was confronted by opposition warships.