Contact was finally made with the M/V Maersk Tigris, the cargo ship seized by Iranian forces earlier this week. The owners of the ship were allowed to speak with some of the crew, who are being detained by Iranian guards in the ship’s cabins and mess area. Though the Iranians continue to insist that this was a legal effort to resolve a 14-year-old debt, the ship’s owners, while neither confirming or denying the allegations, are sounding perplexed and worried. The Wall Street Journal:
“They’re all in relatively good condition, but it’s not a good situation and is still of concern to us,” Mr. Radings said. He added that the company was working with “international parties and experts” to secure the ship’s release, although he declined to provide details of that effort.
The murky details of the seizure are leading U.S. defense officials to dismiss Iran’s explanations and to read the move as signaling Iran’s ability to control the strait—a response to the U.S. moving a carrier into the region last week. The seizure came several days after Iranian patrol boats appeared to be contemplating a similar move on an American-flagged vessel but instead sped off.
Whether this is the act of a group of overzealous local officials—hardliners out to derail a rapprochement with the U.S.—or the result of a policy choice made in Tehran is not clear, and perhaps never will be. But unless the government in Tehran repudiates this act and sends the ship and crew on their way unharmed, it is responsible for the ship’s detention. If this isn’t resolved, or if harm comes to the crew, it is hard to see how U.S.-Iran relations can go on as before. At the very least, a number of centrist Democrats now undecided or leaning toward supporting the President’s Iran policy are going to have their wavering confidence tested.
And rightly so. It’s best to try to keep a cool head when events are heating up—one doesn’t wish to jump to conclusions here—but the ship incident calls the President’s approach to Iran even further into question. If central authorities in Tehran can’t or won’t resolve this quickly, then the message is either that they are too weak to control what rogue underlings do, or that regardless of whether or not they ordered the original seizure, they are now standing behind it. In either case, it is difficult to argue that they can or will keep any nuclear agreement that they sign.
Over and over again, Iran has shown that it wants to make Obama’s life more difficult the more he reaches out to it. Patience is a virtue, but it is not the only virtue. If the White House can’t resolve this through diplomatic means, it may well have to look at those other options that it keeps telling us are on the table.