Iran released the Maersk Tigris, the cargo ship it seized at sea last week.
The New York Times reports:
The Maersk Line, the Danish shipping giant, confirmed in a statement that the vessel and its 24-member crew, forced to anchor near Iran’s southern port of Bandar Abbas since its seizure on April 28, were now free and en route to the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates. …
The Maersk Tigris is registered in the Marshall Islands. It is managed and staffed by Rickmers Shipmanagement, a subsidiary of Germany’s Rickmers Group, a maritime services company, which reported that the crew was in good condition. …
The apparent stand-down reflected what political analysts called a wish by both Iran and the United States to avert an escalation of tensions that could sabotage the nuclear talks between Iran and a group of six powers that includes the United States.
From the language of the report it appears that Maersk agreed to a settlement of the claim an Iranian company had against it.
CBS offered the judgment of one of its security analysts.
The Iranian decision to board the vessel was “a reflection of the fact that tensions are running very high, and these tensions don’t really have borders,” explained CBS News senior national security analyst Juan Zarate. “These are conflicts that are happening on the ground, they’re happening in the shipping lanes, and there are places and points of vulnerability that could… serve as flashpoints for conflict.”
It’s worth noting, Zarate said, that the Iranians have their own economic interests in preserving the safety of the Strait of Hormuz, a body of water through which roughly 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.
“They certainly want the lanes open, but they also want the world to know that they can impact the lines and that this is a point of leverage and vulnerability that Iran can use to its advantage,” he said.
What the Times reported about “avert[ing] an escalation of tensions” differs from Zarate’s observation that Iran “want[s] the world to know that they can impact the lines.”
Zarate is correct. Iran is flexing its muscles. The reduction of tensions will likely be temporary.
Yesterday I posted that law professor Eugene Kontorovich wrote that seizure of Maersk Tigris violated international law because it took place while the ship was at sea and because Iran also seized the crew. In a later analysis when it was reported that Maersk had agreed to make a payment for the release of the ship, Kontorovich called it a ransom.
It appears Iran is essentially seizing vessels for ransom, or charging a selective toll on transit through international straits. …
The Islamic Republic has no legal authority to seize the ship. Releasing it on payment of money is not piracy, because that can only committed by non-state actors, but it is definitely a shake-down, and an assertion of general sovereign rights over international shipping lanes. It is likely not the last such ransom Iran will demand.
(Yesterday, I called Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris “piracy.” I was wrong.)
Last month when the United States deployed ships to the Arabian Sea, Col. Steve Warren said that American ships “are operating [in the Arabian Sea] with a very clear mission to ensure that shipping lanes remain open, to ensure there’s freedom of navigation through those critical waterways, and to help ensure maritime security.” About a week later Iran seized the Maersk Tigris.
Iran paid no price for the seizure and it defied the United States in doing so. If Iran got away with it once, it knows it can do it again.
This isn’t just important in terms of ensuring “freedom of navigation,” Iran plays games like this in other areas too.
In the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), Iran was prohibited from testing advanced centrifuges. But late last year Iran was caught feeding uranium into a single advanced centrifuge. When it was confronted it stopped. But still it violated the terms of the JPOA. Since then the administration has excused the violation terming it a “mistake,” and President Barack Obama now says that Iran abided by the JPOA.
Iran violates its agreements, usually in a limited fashion. If it gets away with it, Iran will keep pushing the envelope.
Even if the nuclear deal is airtight (and it isn’t) if the United States and the West are unwilling to hold Iran responsible for its violations, the agreement is worthless.
The lesson of the Maersk Tigris and of the advanced centrifuge is the same. America does not have the will to make Iran live up to its word.
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