The Strait of Hormuz Pressure Cooker

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Tensions between the United States and Iran have been simmering for the last month. Iran’s actions over the past forty eight hours, and the subsequent US response suggest that the level of tension might be approaching the boiling point. Iran’s seizure of the Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged container vessel, as it transited the Strait of Hormuz has brought about a rapid US response. A security compact exists between the United States and Marshall Islands. It gives the US authority for security matters that relate to the Marshall Islands, which holds the status of an associate state of the US. On Thursday afternoon, Pentagon officials stated that US Navy warships will now be accompanying US-flagged merchant vessels through the Strait of Hormuz.

Accompaniment is not a synonym for escorting. By accompanying American-flagged vessels, elements of the US 5th Fleet will remain in the area to provide assistance if needed to the merchant and commercial vessels transiting the strait. If the 5th Fleet was tasked to actually escort the ships, American warships would convoy the merchants through the Strait of Hormuz. At first glance, the disparity of the wording may appear semantic. In the operational realm, however, the difference is more significant.

Seizing the Maersk Tigris is not the sort of spontaneous action that one would expect from Iran given the current situation in the region. It is, in all likelihood, a calculated move. One piece to a far larger plan. With the nuclear negotiations as the backdrop, the timing of this incident is rather curious. Why has Iran chosen now to provoke the United States? And why in this manner? There are many possibilities, none of them good for the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.

The seizure could be a warning to the US regarding the final approval of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Or perhaps it is a display of Iranian power and influence. A reminder of what the Iranian military is capable of in and around the straits of Hormuz. Another possibility is that the move is designed to distract US attention away from the Gulf of Aden, where an Iranian convoy was forced to turn back last week under the watchful eye of an American carrier strike group.

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