Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces seized a cargo vessel, the M/V Maersk Tigris, traveling in the Persian Gulf yesterday. The New York Times reports:
The ship, the Maersk Tigris, with 24 crew members, was intercepted by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps patrol boats on Tuesday morning while traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, a Pentagon official said. The Iranian forces fired shots across the ship’s bow, the official said, after its captain declined an order by the forces to divert farther into Iranian waters.
The official said the ship was traveling through “an internationally recognized maritime route.” After being fired on, it issued a distress call, prompting the United States Navy to direct a destroyer, the Farragut, to the area and to put aircraft on standby to monitor the situation.
While the ship is MI flagged and has no U.S. crew members, it seems to be largely if not entirely U.S.-owned. The crew appear to be safe this morning. Iranian authorities explained that the ship was seized under Iranian court order, but the ship’s owners have not been able to receive any clarification.
While the U.S. and the Marshall Islands have a ‘compact of free association’, it appears that, strictly speaking, the U.S. has no treaty obligation to defend MI vessels at sea. Nonetheless, historically, messing with free traffic of the seas has been one of the quickest ways to get into a shooting war with the U.S. From the Quasi-War with France and the raids on the Barbary Pirates (the “shores of Tripoli” in the Marines Hymn) to the “Tanker War” with Iran in the 1980s, the US has since its founding reacted to incidents like this with deadly force. (Not to mention entering into larger conflicts such as WWI or the War of 1812 that we entered for largely shipping-related reasons.)
In part, this happens because aggressive moves like these raise the hackles of ‘Hamiltonians’, a current of thought in the history of American foreign policy, which might not favor war for reasons of aggrieved national honor, but is keenly aware of the consequences for the nation if international commerce is disrupted. A move seen as impinging on the world’s oil supply is a great way to provoke a firm Hamiltonian reaction, building consensus for action with an already-roused ‘Jacksonian’ faction.
Meanwhile, somebody in Iran, who may or may not have the Supreme Leader on speed dial, appears to be determined to make life as difficult as possible for President Obama as the countdown continues on the Iran nuclear deal.