Navy ships will begin accompanying US commercial ships during their transit through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf to ensure they encounter no interference from Iran. The new policy, which has not yet officially been announced, was adopted in response to what Washington views as provocative Iranian behavior. Earlier this week, Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps naval vessels reportedly fired warning shots near a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship and have detained it and its crew. Iran says it intervened with the Maersk Tigris because the Maersk shipping line owes it money awarded in a lawsuit.
Iranian naval patrol boats also surrounded a US cargo vessel in the strait last Friday. The strait is narrow and partially within Iranian territorial waters. Under an internationally recognized protocol called "innocent passage," maritime traffic is permitted to pass through the strait without interference, even if ships at times are in Iranian territorial waters, so long as they are not violating strictures against such things as carrying weapons or collecting intelligence. The Navy makes a distinction between accompanying ships and escorting them, although the difference appears to be small. The officials said US Navy ships will be present in and near the Strait of Hormuz while US commercial vessels are in transit, but they will not escort them continuously. (Read more Strait of Hormuz stories.)