Pentagon: No obligation to protect Marshall Islands ships from Iran

Maersk, Iran
Getty Images

The United States has no military obligation to come to the defense of Marshall Island-flagged vessels, a Defense Department representative said Tuesday, following the confrontation between a shipping vessel from that country and the Iranian navy. 

"I am not aware of any specific agreement or treaty that calls for us to protect Marshallese vessels. We do have a clear interest in protecting freedom of navigation," said the representative. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The determination comes after Iran fired warning shots at a Marshall Islands-flagged vessel moving into a shipping lane through the Strait of Hormuz, forcing it to pull closer toward the shoreline. Iranian forces then boarded the ship.

After the incident, Pentagon officials said they were looking into whether they had a duty to protect the ship under treaty obligations with the Marshall Islands. 

The ship was in Iranian waters, within 12 miles of the coast, making it unclear whether it violated any laws or agreements, officials said. But the ship could also be protected under international law because the Strait is a heavily used shipping lane.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Congress overrides Obama 9/11 veto | Pentagon breathes easy after funding deal | More troops heading to Iraq McCain comments won't derail Bergdahl case Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override MORE (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamWhite House, business disappointed over lack of Ex-Im provision in spending bill Overnight Defense: Congress overrides Obama 9/11 veto | Pentagon breathes easy after funding deal | More troops heading to Iraq Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override MORE (R-S.C.) said they disagree with the Pentagon's assessment. 

“Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship transiting the Strait of Hormuz, is a serious and deliberate provocation against the United States and the international community," they said in a statement Tuesday evening.

"Under the Compact of Free Association, the United States is responsible for the defense of the Marshall Islands," they said. 

They also said the incident occurred "just days" after an Iranian naval patrol intercepted and surrounded a U.S.-flagged cargo ship in the same area.  

"This act is another display of Iran’s contempt for the rules-based international order and a threat to the freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital sea lanes," they said. 

About two weeks prior, Iran sent a nine-ship convoy toward Yemen about, potentially to resupply the Shiite Houthi rebels despite an arms embargo against the group. 

The Iranian convoy turned back after the U.S. deployed an aircraft carrier and a destroyer to the same area.