State: US trying to get Marshall Islands ship back from Iran

State: US trying to get Marshall Islands ship back from Iran
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The U.S. is trying to secure the release of a Marshall Islands-flagged ship from Iran, which has become the latest thorn in the U.S.-Iran relationship as both sides inch closer to a June 30 deadline for a nuclear deal. 

"We have made a variety [of efforts] to help secure the release of the ship," said Jeff Rathke, acting deputy State Department spokesman, at a briefing on Monday. 

Iran last Tuesday seized the cargo vessel Maersk Tigris as it was passing through the Strait of Hormuz -- which is in Iranian territorial waters, but also an internationally recognized shipping lane which ships are authorized to sail through under international law.

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The Iranian navy forced the ship to pull further into Iranian territorial waters, where it is docked by the Larak Islands off the coast of Iran. 

Rathke reaffirmed Monday that "basically we have a defense responsibility which also includes shipping," but so far, the U.S. is pursuing "diplomatic communications" with the shipping companies involved, as well as the Marshall Islands. 

"We remain in contact with them to peacefully resolve the incident and ensure safe passage for the vessel and its -- and its crew," Rathke said. 

Rathke refused to answer whether or not the U.S. has directly contacted Iran about the Tigris. 

The fate of the ship is just the latest drama between the U.S. and Iranian navies as the two sides participate in international negotiations to reach a nuclear deal in less than 60 days. 

The Tigris' seizure came just four days after Iran approached and encircled a U.S.-flagged cargo vessel in the Strait, on April 24. Tensions also increased after the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the Gulf of Aden in response to Iran sending a nine-ship convoy to Yemen in a potential attempt to supply the Shiite Houthi rebels. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. has upped its protection for U.S.-flagged cargo ships traveling through the Strait. The Navy began accompanying U.S.-flagged vessels through the Strait last week, and on Monday announced it would start accompanying British-flagged vessels too. 

"There are discussions ongoing with other nations to include their vessels as well," Rathke said. 

U.S. officials characterize the accompaniment mission as an attempt to deter any further incidents in the Strait, and say there are no plans to escalate things militarily in the region. 

Rathke said they are not sure why Iran is detaining the Maersk, citing that Iran has cited a "number of different public descriptions." 

Although Rathke said stopping cargo ships in the Strait "would not be consistent with the international law of the sea," he did not outline any consequences for Iran's seizure of the Tigris. 

"We're in discussion with the Republic of the Marshall Islands on the basis of our compact with them to determine steps and the way forward," he said.