A U.S. Navy destroyer has rushed to the area of a confrontation Tuesday between Iranian warships and a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship in the Strait of Hormuz. The move comes amid increased tensions in the area over the conflict in Yemen, the Pentagon is reported to have said.
The USS Farragut rushed to the scene after an Iranian vessel fired warning shots across the bow of the M/V Maersk Tigris while it was in Iranian waters, according to Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
The shots were fired after the cargo ship refused orders to head further into Iranian waters, Col. Warren said.
After the shots were fired, the cargo ship changed course and complied with the order. The ship was directed to Larak Island by Iranian vessels, he said. Iranian sailors from the Iranian vessel then boarded the ship. Presently the ship is under the control of Iranian forces, officials said.
The U.S. Navy sent the Farragut and U.S. planes to keep watch on the confrontation in response. The ship is currently under U.S. surveillance.
After being accosted by the Iranians, the cargo ship issued a distress call on an open radio channel. Officials at the U.S. 5th Fleet Headquarters directed the Farragut and the Navy planes in response.
Col. Warren said the action by Iranian forces to fire shots at the cargo ship was inappropriate.
”At first appearance this does seem to be provocative behavior but we don’t have all the facts yet,” he said.
The Iranian vessels who fired the shots weren't part of the regular Iranian Navy but were part of the more hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval force. Ships under the command of the IRGC have been involved in a number of provocative incidents in the Persian Gulf during recent years, according to U.S. officials.
There are believed to be about three dozen crew members on the cargo ship, none of them American, according to officials.
Col. Warren stated that the Tigris was in a shipping lane, but also inside Iranian waters when it was confronted by the Iranian vessels. Col. Warren said the maritime navigation principle known as “innocent passage” should have been applied which would have allowed the cargo vessel to pass through the strait.
The confrontation comes amid increased tensions in the region due to Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military operations against Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen.
The U.S. Navy sent an aircraft carrier into the region to keep watch on an Iranian flotilla that American officials suspected of carrying weapons bound for Houthi forces in Yemen, late last week. President Obama warned Iran not to try to arm the militants in Yemen, and the cargo vessels turned back toward Iran, averting a potential confrontation in Gulf of Aden.
The Iranian flotilla is still loitering in the Arabian Sea and Pentagon officials are still keeping watch to make sure it does not turn back and try to head toward Yemen.
The flotilla has now turned east and is heading toward the Strait of Hormuz, Col. Warren said Tuesday.