In yet another violation of the norms of international law, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy craft fired shots on April 28th across the bridge of a commercial cargo ship which was transiting the Strait of Hormuz on an internationally recognized maritime route. The incident occurred after the ship master of the Marshall Islands-flagged vessel, known as the M/V Maersk Tigris, first refused direction from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy to "divert further into Iranian waters," according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren. The ship master did not wait for another burst of fire before deciding to comply with the Iranian demand and proceed as directed. The USS Farragut was ordered to head towards the location of the incident after U.S. forces received a distress call from the Maersk Tigris. U.S. warplanes also were called in to monitor the situation.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy forces reportedly boarded the ship, which had approximately thirty people on board. Although no Americans were on the ship when it was seized, the United States nevertheless has the “responsibility for security and defense matters in or relating to the Republic of the Marshall Islands” under the terms of the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands.
The Iranian regime is trying to spin its illegal interception and seizure of the ship, which it described in a statement as an “American trade vessel.” Iran claimed that it responded legitimately to alleged “trespassing into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf.”
"An Iranian warship is now taking the American vessel to Iran’s southern port city of Bandar Abbas," the statement added. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ home port is located at Bandar Abbas.
After having recently turned around its ships headed for Yemen when the U.S. navy beefed up its deployment of warships near the coast of Yemen, the Iranian regime evidently believes that it must demonstrate some military prowess closer to home. It may be testing President Obama’s resolve to carry out U.S. defense obligations under a defense treaty with an ally, with a view towards what the Obama administration might be willing to do in the future to support Saudi Arabia. It may be testing how far the Obama administration would go in defending what White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, in explaining last Tuesday the reason for dispatching the USS Theodore Roosevelt from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea, said was the importance of maintaining “freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce.” And the Iranian Revolutionary Guard might also be attempting to gain some leverage by seizing the cargo vessel in the event they decide to try again to send their ships to supply the Houthis in Yemen.
Whatever Iran’s motives might be, the rogue regime acted in contravention of international law. Even if a ship operating under the flag of one state is technically passing through the territorial waters of another state, the ship is permitted to do so without interference so long as it is not thereby prejudicing the peace, good order or security of that other coastal state. This is known as the right to “innocent passage,” which has been codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Articles 17 through 19).
Iran and the Marshall Islands are both parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Although the United States itself is not a party to the Convention, it has a treaty obligation to defend the Marshall Islands.
In Iran’s own “Interpretative declaration on the subject of straits” accompanying its signature, Iran stated its own understanding that, while “only states parties to the Law of the Sea Convention shall be entitled to benefit from the contractual rights created” by the Convention, one of those benefits is the “right of Transit passage through straits used for international navigation.” Iran forcibly deprived another party to the Convention, the Marshall Islands, of this right.
In signing the Convention, Iran did state its interpretation of “innocent passage,” which Iran asserted would “implicitly” allow for the state involved to “take measures to safeguard their security interests including the adoption of laws and regulations regarding, inter alia, the requirements of prior authorization for warships willing to exercise the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.” However, the M/V Maersk Tigris is not a warship and posed no threat to Iran.
In short, just as Iran has repeatedly breached its commitments under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it is a party, Iran is breaching its commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to which it is also a party.
The Obama administration insists on decoupling the nuclear negotiations with Iran from Iran’s overall abysmal record of behavior as a member of the international community. The administration believes that Iran’s violations of international treaties to which it is a party, as well as its sponsorship of terrorism and destabilizing actions in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere, are unrelated to the administration’s relentless quest for a nuclear deal.
Even in the context of the nuclear negotiations themselves, the Obama administration is oblivious to reality. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and high level government officials have declared that Iran will not sign a final deal unless all sanctions are lifted immediately. They have also declared that Iran will not allow unfettered inspections to verify its compliance with the terms of a final deal and that military sites are off limits. Iran has not budged at all on these fundamental issues and shows no signs of doing so.
Yet in his remarks delivered at UN headquarters in New York on April 27th where the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference is being held, Secretary of State John Kerry said “we are, in fact, closer than ever to the good comprehensive deal that we have been seeking.” If so, that is only because President Obama is willing to make even more concessions to get a deal signed.
The latest episode of Iranian thuggery – this time at sea – should be a “3am wake-up call” to the Obama administration that it is dealing with a regime which cannot be trusted to keep its commitments or comply with international law. Sadly, however, the world will most likely face the nightmare of a nuclear armed Iran because President Obama is still fancifully dreaming that he can bring about “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
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