US must respond to Iranian ship hijacking?Iranian hijacking of a Danish (corrected) ship bearing the flag of the Marshall Islands in the Strait of Hormuz, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report the Marshall Islands has a defense treaty with the United States that bars it from taking action on its own.
When asked if his country would request that the U.S. rescue the cargo ship from Iran, Junior Aini, the charge d'affairs for the Marshall Islands Embassy in Washington, told us he was still awaiting guidance from his foreign ministry. But he also suggested that his country had no other recourse than to hope the U.S. responds.
"The United States has the full security responsibility over the islands and for the defense of the islands, this is what our treaty says," he told us. Aini was referring to a 1986 accord between the U.S. and the island nation that set the terms for independence. The Marshall Islands has no standing army. News that Iran had boarded the Maersk Tigris surprised Aini. He said he initially learned about the incidentfrom watching Fox News.
Aini also said his nation is barred by the 1986 agreement from doing anything that would challenge America's role in this regard. "We cannot take any action that will impact the U.S. responsibility," he said. Under a 1983 Compact of Free Association, the U.S. has “full authority and responsibility for security and defense of the Marshall Islands,” according to a State Department fact sheet.
By taking a non-U.S. ship under questionable circumstances at a moment of high tension in the region, Iran has again put Washington in a tough spot. Given that the U.S. Senate is simultaneously debating its bill on oversight of Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, the repercussions are going to spread far beyond the Strait of Hormuz.The Israel Project's Omri Ceren reports by email that the Obama administration is already trying to avoid taking action.
The first wave was about how the security arrangement between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands affects Washington: is the Obama administration now affirmatively bound to confront the Iranians over the capture? The short answer is that it's not clear. Some analysts have defended potential White House inaction by saying there’s a legal loophole, under which a vessel so flagged would not count as part of the Marshall Islands conducting its foreign affairs.Ceren argues that trying to avoid taking action would be a disaster, further expanding on Lake's and Rogin's last paragraph above.
American inaction under this scenario would be a one-two punch to Washington's credibility: the Americans locked up the Marshall Islanders' freedom of action by promising to take care of defense for them, and then when the time came the Obama administration refused to act. It would be a nightmare scenario: the U.S. would be using security assurances not to shield allies from Iran but to shield Iran from allies.
Gulf leaders, who will be in Washington next month to discuss how the U.S. can protect them in the aftermath of a bad Iran deal, would not miss the signal. There’s already a healthy about of regional grumbling about the U.S. using its leverage over the Israelis and the Saudis – leverage that it has as a protector – to hold them back on Hezbollah and Yemen.
The State Department briefing this afternoon was inconclusive:
Reporter: What do you consider the Iranian act? Is it a -- an act of piracy, act of violence?
Rathke: Again, I'm -- this I think is underway. I'm not going to apply an adjective to it right now. We are following the situation very carefully, but I'm not going to...
Reporter: But do you condemn it?
Keep in mind something else here: 40% of the World's oil supply passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Will the US allow Iran to choke that supply off? If it does, US credibility will be zero, but how exactly will other countries react?Rathke: Well, again, we're gathering more information. I don't have further reaction at this point. Yes, Brad? (http://www.c-span.org/video/?325639-1/state-department-briefing at 13:57)
What could go wrong?