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Iran just seized a cargo ship near one of the world’s most important shipping lanes

The USS Farragut, an American destroyer dispatched to monitor the Maersk Tigris situation, at sea.
The USS Farragut, an American destroyer dispatched to monitor the Maersk Tigris situation, at sea.
Handout/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. Iran has commandeered a cargo ship, the M/V Maersk Tigris, near the Strait of Hormuz, a vitally important shipping lane off of Iran's coast. Iranian ships allegedly fired a shot across the Tigris's bow and forced it toward Iranian waters.
  2. Contrary to some early reports, the ship is not American. It is flagged to the Marshall Islands. The US government has said no Americans are on board.
  3. Nevertheless, the USS Farragut has been ordered to nearby international waters, according to the Pentagon. American planes are also monitoring the situation.

Why the Iranian seizure matters

If it wants to, Iran has the ability to use tactics like this to seriously hurt global oil markets. About 20 percent of the world's oil trade travels through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow area the Tigris was trying to sail through. Any major disruption of shipping there — or even just the suggestion of a potential disruption — could wreak havoc on global oil prices, which is a threat to the entire global economy. The nightmare scenario is an Iranian blockade; defense analysts worry that in the event of an open war between the United States and Iran, the Iranian leadership might decide to close off the strait as a form of economic warfare.

To be clear: we aren't anywhere near close to that. Nothing yet suggests that the seizure of the Tigris is the first step toward a broader Iranian campaign to disrupt shipping through the strait.

But the strait's economic importance means that any conflict there is a concern for the United States, which has long made it official policy to maintain free oil trade from the Persian Gulf. So the developing situation with the Tigris matters to the US even despite the fact that it's not an American-flagged ship and there are no Americans on the crew.

This isn't the only naval incident involving Iran recently. Last week, the United States and Saudi Arabia forced Iranian cargo ships away from Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been conducting a military campaign there against the Houthi rebel movement, which Iran supports. American and Saudi officials believed the Iranian ships may have been trying to provide arms to the Houthis.

It's possible, then, that the seizure of Tigris is retaliation: a means of signaling that Iran has the ability to endanger the global economy and hence shouldn't be trifled with at sea. But Iranian intentions — which will determine how the situation plays out — are still far from clear.

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