Will Iran’s naval moves sink nuclear deal?

Aggressive moves by Iran in crowded international waters are giving skeptics of a nuclear deal with Tehran more ammunition just as negotiations enter the final stretch.

On Tuesday morning, several Iranian navy vessels approached a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian forces fired shots across the ship’s bridge and boarded it when it refused to pull farther into Iranian waters.

{mosads}The U.S. Navy has sent a destroyer in response to the Maersk Tigris’s distress call, as well as a maritime reconnaissance aircraft, leading to the second potential showdown between the American and Iranian navies in less than two weeks. 

A little more than a week ago, Iran sent a nine-ship convoy to the Gulf of Aden in a suspected attempt to resupply the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. A U.S. aircraft carrier and a destroyer headed to the same waters until the Iranians turned back.

“I think it’s dramatically escalatory and we need to find out exactly what’s happened here,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of Tuesday’s incident. McCain is a vocal critic of the negotiations with Iran, which aim to curb its ability to create nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. 

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said the incident was proof of why Iran could not be trusted.

“This aggression from Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, is yet another example of this rogue regime’s reckless behavior that the international community cannot — and must not — tolerate,” said Gardner, a Foreign Relations Committee member.  

Omri Ceren, managing director at The Israel Project, which opposes the current nuclear deal, said Iran’s seizure of the ship will also undermine attempts by the White House to reassure its allies in the region. 

“The incident will reinforce to our allies that they have to go it alone against Iran, and they’ll respond to a deal by stockpiling weapons and going nuclear, destabilizing not just the region but the world,” Ceren said. 

Proponents of the nuclear deal also expressed some concern over the incident.

“We have to assure the sea lanes are open. I think it’s important to find out exactly what happened,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the Armed Services Committee’s ranking member. 

“But we can’t tolerate interference with vessels moving up and down in international waters. It’s very serious when ships are intercepted like that,” he said.

The Senate this week will take up legislation that would allow Congress to weigh in on the final nuclear deal with Tehran. Negotiators have a self-imposed deadline of June 30 to reach that accord.

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) amended it to address the White House’s concerns and batted back controversial amendments.

Tuesday’s incident could make it easier for senators to get some of those amendments back in and more difficult for Democrats to oppose them. The bill needs the backing of at least six Democrats or Independents to reach a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority. 

Reed, however, pushed back against the idea of using Iran’s recent actions at sea as a basis to oppose a final nuclear deal.

“You have to have a conscious recognition of priorities. The most critical priority is to prevent the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said. 

Reza Marashi, research director of the National Iranian American Council, which supports the talks, said Iran may have boarded the ship because of suspicions it was from rival Saudi Arabia and heading to the United Arab Emirates. 

“If that’s true, it could be part of an escalation in the conflict between Tehran and Riyadh,” Marashi said. One theory he offered was that the Iranians could be retaliating for the Saudi bombing of a landing strip in Yemen where Iran was said to be planning to land a plane.

Pentagon and Navy officials say that, for now, the U.S. is monitoring the situation. The Maersk Tigris is currently near the Iranian shoreline, and the USS Farragut destroyer has been deployed “in the general vicinity,” a Navy spokesman said. 

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are downplaying the situation, framing it as an issue of keeping the sea lanes open.

At the same time, the Pentagon said it is looking into whether it is obligated to defend the vessel under treaty obligations to the Marshall Islands. 

State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said it was “premature” to consider whether the U.S. is prepared to use force to defend the small island nation. 

“The security compact between the United States and the Republic of Marshall Islands gives the U.S. authority and responsibility for security and defense matters that relate to the Marshall Islands, including matters related to vessels flying the Marshallese flag,” Rathke said.

“But it won’t surprise you that we, you know, have not done a thorough, full-ranging analysis of that compact in the last couple of hours. … But certainly that’s something we’re looking — we’re looking at,” he said. 

Brad Larschan, an international lawyer and CEO of intellectual property firm Bastille Inc., said America’s allies and foes will be watching carefully to see what the U.S. does.

“Like it or not, the Obama administration is facing a very serious crisis,” he said.

— Updated 1:12 p.m.

Tags Asia Ben Cardin Bob Corker Cory Gardner Iran Iran–United States relations Jack Reed John McCain Strait of Hormuz

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