The U.S. military has dispatched a destroyer in pursuit of a commercial ship that was fired upon and then boarded by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
The Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged container ship, was intercepted by patrol ships from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy around 4 a.m. Eastern time, according to Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. No U.S. citizens were believed to be among the more than 30 crew members aboard the vessel.
After the ship refused to comply with an Iranian order to steam further into Iran’s territorial waters, one of the Iranian patrol vessels fired across the Tigris’s bridge, Warren said.
The Tigris, which had been heading toward the Persian Gulf when it was intercepted, then complied with the Iranian ships’ order, proceeding to an area near Larak Island, in the northern edge of the strait off Iran’s coast.
According to Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency, the Maersk Tigris was seized at the request of the Iranian Ports and Maritime Organization. The news agency quoted an unidentified source as “indicating that the IPMO had monetary differences with the ship owner.”
Fars said vessels of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy were taking the ship to the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. Iran’s state-run Press TV news outlet said the ship was boarded after it “reportedly trespassed on Iranian waters.”
Neither news outlet elaborated on the dispute that allegedly triggered the seizure.
Amy Hauser, general manager of marketing for Maersk Line Ltd., a U.S. company based in Norfolk, said the 52,600-ton Maersk Tigris is owned and operated by Singapore-based Rickmers Ship Management, which is part of the Rickmers Group based in Hamburg, Germany. She said that it was chartered to Maersk Line but that she had no information on what the ship was carrying or the nationalities of the crew members.
“We don’t crew it,” Hauser said. She said Maersk Line “moves cargo for the U.S. government and military.”
Hauser said she could not shed any light on the financial dispute being reported by Iranian media.
Maersk Line is part of the Maersk Group, a Danish conglomerate that has businesses active in the oil and gas and drilling industries, among others, in addition to shipping.
According to a vessel-tracking Web site, the Maersk Tigris was en route to Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates. Its previous port was listed as Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, meaning that it was heading into the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman after making its way around the Arabian Peninsula from the Red Sea.
Commercial ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, which separates the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, transit Iranian waters but are permitted to do so as long as they do not threaten Iranian interests, U.S. officials said. A State Department official said that under a bilateral compact the United States has responsibility for the security of the Marshall Islands, including the defense of ships flying the tiny Pacific nation’s flag.
The U.S. military, after receiving a distress call from the Tigris, sent surveillance aircraft to monitor the situation and ordered the destroyer USS Farragut to head toward the Maersk Tigris. The Farragut was in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday evening.
“At first appearance, it does seem to be provocative behavior, but again we don’t have all the facts yet,” Warren said.
It was not immediately clear whether the Farragut, which is now in international waters, would enter Iranian waters.
The incident comes days after U.S. officials sought to de-escalate naval tensions that arose with Iran after the U.S. military sent an aircraft carrier off the coast of Yemen. U.S. officials suspect that Iran has been sending weapons and supplies to Yemen to aid Houthi rebels who are fighting a U.S.-backed coalition of Arab nations.
“The open question is, what’s the intent?” said a defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation.
A U.S. Navy official noted that in an incident Friday, the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Kensington was approached by four Iranian patrol craft while on an internationally recognized shipping route in the southern Persian Gulf, off the coast of Oman. The Iranian ships circled the Kensington and followed it for a time but departed without firing any shots.
The incidents are alarming to U.S. officials, the Navy official said. The Kensington was in the Arabian Sea on Tuesday after stopping in Mumbai, India, over the weekend, according to MarineTraffic, a Web site that tracks ship movements.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.