A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Iran Seizes Marshall Islands Ship: Will US Respond?

I think the last time the Marshall Islands made it into this blog was over a year ago when they rescinded their move to name former Lebanese spymaster Jamil  El-Sayed as Ambassador to UNESCO, possibly a move aimed at giving him diplomatic cover in the Hariri assassination investigation. That suggested that the microstate of 29 Pacific atolls doesn't understand the Middle East very well. They do, however understand flags of convenience.

As you may know, a cargo ship, the Maersk Tigris,was seized by Iran today after apparently entering Iranian waters off Qeshm island. The Iranian Navy fired a shot across her bow (it did not "fire on" the ship as some reports said) and escorted her into Bandar Abbas.

Apparently there is an outstanding commercial dispute and Iran has a court order, but the issue drew international attention because of initial reports that she was an American cargo ship.

It isn't, and the US is reacting cautiously since this seems to be about a commercial dispute, The Maersk line is Danish owned, but the Maersk Tigris is chartered by a Singaporean firm, and flies the Marshallese flag.

The Marshall Islands Navy is not going to come steaming to the rescue, because they don't have one. The complicating factor is that the US is pledged to provide for the defense of the Marshalls under an agreement signed when the Marshalls became independent in 1986 and known as the Compact of Free Association; the Marshalls were previously a US-Administered UN Trust Territory. The US provides for defense of the islands, but does that extend to protecting ships carrying a Marshallese flag of convenience?

Obviously if either side is looking for a fight it could be a problem, but if this is really a commercial dispute, it probably ought to be dealt with as such.

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