Setting up for war with Iran in the Persian Gulf

The Navy on Thursday began deploying warships to protect American commercial vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz against any interference from Iran, which this week seized a cargo ship in the narrow waterway, though which about 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.
Military officials said American warships and aircraft would maintain a presence in and around the strait and stay in contact with some American cargo ships traversing the sea lane, which separates the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Sea. But the officials drew a distinction between the new effort, which they characterized as “accompanying” commercial vessels, and escorting ships, which would involve convoys led by warships.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter approved the new policy on Thursday, said the officials, who cast it as a show of force intended to discourage Iran from making any aggressive moves against American shipping in the strait. At least one American ship has passed through the strait under the eye of the Navy, they said.
American officials said there had been growing concerns in recent weeks that Iranian gunboats were harassing cargo ships passing through the strait, part of which includes Iran’s territorial waters. Iranian gunboats, for instance, trailed an American-flagged container ship, the Maersk Kensington, through the strait last Friday.
Then, on Tuesday, Iranian forces fired shots across the bow of the Maersk Tigris, a container ship registered in the Marshall Islands, which has close ties to the United States. The Iranians then seized the ship and detained its crew, which was sailing to a port near Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, from Jidda, Saudi Arabia.
Maersk, the Danish shipping giant, said on Thursday that the seizure of the Tigris stemmed from a decade-long legal dispute over 10 shipping containers that were sent from Iran to the United Arab Emirates in 2005.
But it is unusually aggressive to detain a cargo ship at gunpoint over a legal claim, and the United States sent a destroyer, the Farragut, to the Persian Gulf after the Iranian move.
Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said on Thursday that “American naval forces will continue to monitor the situation.”
Other American officials said the Farragut, which carries a helicopter, was to remain in the area and help accompany shipping through the strait. It will be joined by coastal patrol ships, which are armed.
No time limit has been set on the operation, the officials said, and they had no details on how many American ships pass through the strait.
“Bottom line, this is a precautionary move to simply maintain a credible U.S. naval presence and ensure freedom of navigation,” a senior military official said. “It’s what navies do. We’ll continue to monitor and assess as we seek to keep tensions low and adjust as needed.”
Iran appeared to be similarly aware of the risks of letting the seizure of the Tigris harm the nuclear talks. The deal would ease sanctions against Iran in exchange for Tehran’s abandoning its nuclear weapons programs.
The Iranian government’s Port and Maritime Organization this week sought to keep the two issues from becoming entangled, saying the Tigris seizure “has a legal aspect, and relating it to political issues could be due to unawareness of the regulations and the case.”
The 10 containers in question, which were sent by an Iranian company, were never picked up. After 90 days, “the cargo was disposed of” by government authorities in line with local law, Maersk said. The disposal of the crates led to court battles in several Iranian courts. Maersk
said that on Feb. 18, a court ordered it to pay $163,000, which the company said it was willing to pay. But Maersk said it was told on Thursday that a higher court had ordered it to pay $3.6 million.
“As we do not have the details of the ruling, we are not able to comment hereon, nor at this point speculate on our options,” the company said.
The Iran port agency’s statement identified the Iranian company that sued Maersk as the Pars Talaee Oil Production Company. The statement said that the agency had been notified of the verdict and that it “was implemented by the operational forces.”
The 10 containers were said to hold equipment for oil drilling and production.
The Tigris is chartered by Maersk, but owned and operated by a Singapore company, Rickmers Shipmanagement. The company initially said the crew consisted of Eastern Europeans and Asians, but has since said that there was one Briton aboard as well.
A Rickmers official was allowed to see the crew on Thursday for the first time
since the seizure, and the company said that “given the current circumstances, they
are all in a good condition.”
Matthew Rosenberg reported from Washington, and Danny Hakim from London. Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington.

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