THE NEW YORK TIMES

U.S. Sends Destroyer After Iran Detains Ship

By HELENE COOPER and DANNY HAKIM - APRIL 28, 2015

 

WASHINGTON — The United States Navy sent a destroyer toward the Persian Gulf on
Tuesday after Iran took control of a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship it accused of trespassing
in territorial waters, American military officials said.


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.


The episode threatened fragile negotiations over reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but
American officials were quick to play down its significance, correcting initial reports out of Iran
that it had seized a United States ship. The Marshall Islands, in the Pacific, have been
independent of the United States since 1986 but have a “free association” relationship with the
country.


Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the ship was traveling through Iranian territorial
waters that are, by international agreement, open to foreign ships making an innocent passage.
He said it was “inappropriate” for Iran to have fired warning shots, but he added that it was too
early to know whether Iran’s intervention was a violation of international navigation freedom.
Iran has in the past threatened to block the strait, a route for much of the world’s oil.


An American military official said Tuesday that the Farragut was about 60 miles away from the
site of the episode, and that as of the afternoon there had been no communication between the
United States Navy and Iran.


A Maersk spokesman said that the ship was a charter vessel, not a Maersk-crewed ship. A
spokesman for the charter company, Rickmers Shipmanagement, said that the crew members
were all Eastern European or Asian, and that the ship had been headed to a port near Dubai, in
the United Arab Emirates, from Jidda, Saudi Arabia. It was carrying general cargo, “anything
from food to machinery to electronics,” he said.


The Rickmers spokesman, Cor Radings, said the captain had said that the ship did not stray into
Iranian waters outside the international maritime route. “She was stopped by the Iranians and
instructed to go to a rendezvous point in Iranian waters,” he said. “Since then we’ve lost contact
with the ship.”


The Maersk spokesman, Michael Storgaard, said in an email that he could not recall another
episode in which a Maersk vessel had been detained by the Iranian authorities. “Seizure in open
sea by authorities?” he said. “I cannot exclude it has happened before, but would believe we have
to go back” to World War II.


Maersk said Tuesday evening that the ship was being escorted toward Bandar Abbas, Iran, by
Iranian patrol boats.


The episode raised tensions between the United States and the Iranians, who last week turned
back a naval convoy suspected of carrying weapons bound for Shiite rebels in Yemen after the
American military sent an aircraft carrier group to waters off the coast. That confrontation came
weeks after world powers and Iran reached a tentative agreement in which Tehran would
drastically cut its enrichment of uranium in exchange for an easing of sanctions.


But officials must still work out the final details of the agreement, and another naval
confrontation would make selling a deal even harder.


“To maintain political support for a deal, President Obama has to remain vigilant about Iranian
behavior in the region,” said Cliff Kupchan, the chairman of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm
that assesses political risk around the world. He said that he found Iran’s seizure of the Maersk
ship “surprisingly incendiary” and that it could be a result of Iranian pique over the show of
American naval power last week.


“The Iranian elite is extremely concerned about saving face and gaining leverage,” Mr. Kupchan
said. “This was probably an attempt to level the playing field.”


Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Danny Hakim from London.


A version of this article appears in print on April 29, 2015, on page A4 of the New York edition
with the headline: U.S. Sends Destroyer After Iran Detains Ship.


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