Pentagon: Iran navy harassed US-flagged vessel

Pentagon: Iran navy harassed US-flagged vessel

The Iranian navy harassed a U.S.-flagged cargo ship last week before accosting a Marshall Islands-flagged vessel this week, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

Four Iranian ships approached the MV Maersk Kensington last Friday morning, as it was in the southern part of the Arabian Gulf on an "internationally recognized shipping lane," a Navy spokesman said. 

At one point, the Iranian ships "encircled and followed" the U.S.-flagged cargo ship, but eventually withdrew from the vessel, said the spokesman.

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The cargo ship's master did not call for help, and no U.S. forces were present, or involved in the incident, the Navy spokesman said.

The ship proceeded on its route, and later filed a report with the U.S. Navy, who then advised U.S. shipping companies on how to call for help.

Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said the incident lasted for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, and involved "actions the shipmaster of the Kensington interpreted as aggressive." 

Warren said it was difficult to know the Iranians' intentions, but said, "We certainly call on them to respect all of the internationally established rules of freedom of navigation, the Law of the Sea — to which they are a signatory, and other established protocols." 

The Navy spokesman said the cargo ship was "not in Iranian waters."

He added it is not uncommon for Iranian ships to patrol the Strait of Hormuz, "but what is unusual in this case is the encircling."

"It is not unusual for Iranian vessels to patrol that area but...most encounters are safe and professional. This stands out," he said. 

He characterized the ships as "patrol" craft, but said it was the same type of ships that accosted a Marshall Island-flagged cargo ship, the MV Maersk Tigris, on Tuesday.

One of those ships fired shots across the bridge of the cargo ship during that incident.

Warren said a U.S. destroyer USS Farragut sent to monitor the incident involving the Tigris was in the Arabian Gulf along with three other U.S. patrol boats. The Tigris is anchored near the Larak Island, he said.

"They're keeping an eye on things. They're in close enough proximity with the Maersk Tigris that they'll be able to respond if a response is required, Warren said. "These assets give commanders options." 

The Pentagon said Tuesday they were not obligated to defend the Marshall Islands-flagged ship, but Warren on Wednesday retracted that statement and said the U.S. government was in discussions with the Marshall Islands "on the way ahead."

He said the decision to defend the vessel would be a "presidential decision."

The Pentagon said under the Compact of Free Association, the U.S. has "full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters in or relating to the [Republic of the Marshall Islands], to include matters relating to vessels flying the Marshallese flag." 

"The Republic of the Marshall Islands has not contacted us to request assistance in this matter. We are tracking the situation closely, and understand that U.S. Navy assets are monitoring it from the vicinity," the Pentagon said. 

"We are also communicating with shipping industry representatives with regard to how the masters of merchant vessels should respond to encounters with foreign naval forces in the region that they perceive to be threatening," it said. 

-- Updated at 1:27 p.m.