MARAD Warns U.S. Shipping of Iranian Threat

USS Abraham Lincoln (file image courtesy USN)

By The Maritime Executive 05-10-2019 08:52:40

The United States Maritime Administration has warned American merchant vessels of the potential threat of an Iranian attack as tensions mount between Washington and Tehran. 

"Since early May, there is an increased possibility that Iran and/or its regional proxies could take action against U.S. and partner interests, including oil production infrastructure," MARAD wrote. "After recently threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz Iran or its proxies could respond by targeting commercial vessels, including oil tankers, or U.S. military vessels in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, or the Persian Gulf."

MARAD advises U.S.-flagged vessels to make contact with U.S. Fifth Fleet two days in advance of transiting the Strait of Hormuz in either direction. Masters are requested to report any incidents or suspicious activity directly to 5th Fleet or to coalition naval vessels. 

In the event that a U.S.-flagged vessel is challenged by Iranian forces, the master is advised to respond by noting that the vessel is exercising its navigational rights and proceeding in accordance with international law (UNCLOS). If Iranian naval forces attempt to board a U.S. flag commercial vessel, the crew should immediately contact U.S. 5th Fleet, and should not attempt to forcibly resist. 

Tensions continue to rise

Last week, the White House asked the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group to accelerate its deployment to the Middle East in response to unspecified Iranian threats to U.S. forces. It also deployed four B-52 heavy strategic bombers to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, an American base located just across the Persian Gulf from Iranian shores. 

The Lincoln has entered the region, and even more naval assets - including an extra cruiser and an amphib - are now under way to join her. However, officals told CNN that Iran's military posture has not changed and Tehran's suspected plans for action do not appear to have been canceled. "We are looking for anything to reflect a change in their behavior and are not seeing it," the official told CNN. 

Iran refuses to negotiate

On Friday, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps said that it would not negotiate with the United States, despite the mounting military presence. "Negotiations with Americans will not take place, and Americans will not dare to take military action against us," said IRGC Brigadier General Yadollah Javani.

In addition, hardline Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Tabatabai-Nejad said that "if they attempt any move, they will [face] dozens of missiles because at that time . . . things will be in the hands of our beloved leader," the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Iran's elected leaders are widely seen as more moderate and more likely to engage in diplomacy than its theocratic leadership. Khamenei was a leading figure in the Iranian Revolution and a founding member of Iran's cleric-led political system, and he is the head of the Iranian armed forces - including the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The hardening rhetoric from Tehran comes as American sanctions on Iran's oil exports are starting to take full effect. Though initiated last August, the sanctions have still allowed a limited volume of Iranian oil to be sold under a waiver program. The waivers have now ended, and the Trump administration is working to achieve its aim of driving Iran's oil exports to zero. The strategy may be working: Bloomberg reports that it has not detected any outbound, laden tankers leaving Iran's oil terminals since the beginning of May. Just last year, before sanctions took hold, Iran was exporting oil at a rate of one VLCC (two million barrels) per day.