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Ship seizures in Strait of Hormuz are rare despite tensions

By OREN DORELL | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 29, 2015

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the busiest and most tense sea passages in the world, but confrontations such as Iran's seizure of a civilian cargo ship Tuesday have been rare.

That is reassuring to the global economy since 40 percent of the world's oil shipments pass through the strait's 21-mile-wide chokehold.

The strait's economic importance is a key reason why Iran hasn't disrupted sea traffic that also benefits the Islamic Republic.

"The whole point about a choke point is to expedite maritime commercial traffic," said Peter Chalk, a maritime security analyst at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif. "If you start preventing passage to any route, it affects global commerce, and that affects Iran."

Iranian naval authorities diverted the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas after a brief confrontation at sea. According to the Pentagon, the ship followed Iranian orders after it was informed it had crossed into Iran's territorial waters and a shot was fired across its bow.

The United States, which handles the defense needs of the Marshall Islands and has security arrangements with several Arab nations in the Persian Gulf, sent a warship to the area to monitor the situation.

The strait is the transit point for 85% of crude oil shipped from the Persian Gulf to Asian markets. The shipping lane in either direction is only two miles wide, separated by a two-mile buffer zone, according to the Energy Information Agency, part of the U.S. Energy Department.

It is bordered by Oman to the south and Iran to the north. Each country claims a 12-mile maritime border, but, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, they share the strait and allow "innocent passage" to civilian ships.

Christopher Harmer, a former military planner for the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf who was present for multiple transits of the strait, said the shipping lanes are so narrow that ships ply the waters in single file in each direction. Commercial vessels have transponders that allow authorities on shore to monitor whether they are on track.

Iranian patrol boats and gunboats closely monitor the traffic and challenge ships that veer off course, but usually a verbal challenge by ship-to-ship radio is as far as it goes, Harmer said.

Why it happened this time is unclear. Harmer said it could be retaliation for the U.S. blockade of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who control much of Yemen.

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