By David Lerman, Tony Capaccio and Terry Atlas
(Bloomberg) — The U.S. Navy has begun accompanying U.S.- flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz in response to Iran’s seizure of a cargo ship flying the flag of the Marshall Islands, American defense officials said.
The move is aimed at preventing harassment of ships transiting the strait, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing military operations. One of the officials said discussions are being held with other nations on whether to accompany their vessels as well.
The decision reflects increased tensions in the Strait of Hormuz, the No. 1 choke point for oil transit. Iran seized control of the MV Maersk Tigris in the strait on Tuesday after briefly tailing a U.S. commercial ship last week. The Maersk Tigris flies the flag of the Marshall Islands, a former trust territory for which the U.S. has some security and defense responsibilities.
Accompanying ships means that U.S. Navy vessels will be in the same general area to ensure a safe flow of maritime traffic, one of the officials said, and is a step short of a full escort.
Six U.S.-flagged vessels are currently in the Persian Gulf near the Strait of Hormuz, according to Bloomberg vessel- tracking data. They include one container ship, three offshore supply ships and two vehicle carriers.
The Navy has 11 vessels in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf that can immediately accompany vessels — five patrol craft, four destroyers, one cruiser and one minesweeper, one of the officials said. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is in the Persian Gulf but unlikely to participate, the official said.
In 2013, about 17 million barrels of oil a day, about 30 percent of all seaborne-traded oil, passed through the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway that connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
At its narrowest point, the strait is 21 miles (34 kilometers) wide. But the width of the shipping lane in either direction is only two miles, separated by a two-mile buffer zone, according to the EIA report.
Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris probably stems from a $3.6 million judgment in a decade-long dispute over 10 shipping containers, the Maersk Group said.
The company issued a statement Thursday saying the confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz with the ship “presumably” was related to commercial litigation. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his country’s naval forces acted under a court order.
Naval forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confronted the Maersk Tigris, ordering it farther into Iranian waters. When the ship’s captain refused to comply, Iranians fired warning shots across the ship’s bridge, according to the U.S. Iranian military personnel then boarded the ship and brought it closer to shore.
International law permits a ship to be detained while in a nation’s territorial waters if such action is recognized under that country’s laws. The Strait of Hormuz is an unusual situation because established international shipping lanes include Iranian territorial waters.
After the seizure, Republican U.S. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the incident a “serious and deliberate provocation against the United States,” which has some defense obligations for Marshall Islands-flagged vessels. Some commentators suggested that Iranian hard-liners seemed to have seized the ship in response to the movement of U.S. warships close to Yemen or to undercut negotiations over their nation’s nuclear program.
Last week, four Iranian patrol boats tailed the Maersk Kensington, a U.S. cargo ship in a manner that its captain interpreted as aggressive, Army Colonel Steve Warren told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday.
The pursuit lasted 15 to 20 minutes before the Iranian boats veered away, he said.
CNN reported the Navy’s decision to accompany ships earlier Thursday.
–With assistance from Sarita Williams in Houston.
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