Last week, U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power testified to Congress that Israel couldn’t rely on the United States to veto anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N. Security Council, but she tried to soften the blow by saying, “We have a record of standing when it matters with Israel.” The question was and remains, who decides when something “matters”?
New question: who thought that it wouldn’t be Israel that first came to test the American “what matters” principle, but rather the Marshall Islands – a tiny country of 68,480 people spread over 24 atolls in the Micronesian island chain? Iran has fired on and boarded a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship and forced it and its 34 crew members into an Iranian port, claiming the ship was in Iranian territorial waters. It isn’t clear yet whether the ship was, in fact, in Iranian or international water, although the Pentagon was quick to say the Iranians were right.
Now, this may have been a mistake on the part of Iran.
The mullahs were quite irritated by the presence of the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt off the off the coast of Yemen last week, possibly preventing Iranian ships from offloading assistance to its allies, the Houthi rebel fighting force. They were very irritated by Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren’s comment that the American carrier group had “a very clear mission to ensure that shipping lanes remain open, to ensure there’s freedom of navigation through those critical waterways, and to help ensure maritime security[.] … [B]y having American sea power there, we’re able to keep a very close eye on them [the Iranians]. We are going to maintain freedom of navigation.”
In fact, the Iranian news agencies FARS and IRNA claim that the ship they commandeered was American, and early reports said there were American sailors aboard. They could well have been making a point about the enforcement of freedom of navigation.
But Iran might also have been playing a different game.
The ship is actually owned by the Danish Maersk Line. A Danish news channel said there were 24 crew members aboard, mainly from Eastern Europe and Asia – none of whom are American. The ship is flying under the Marshall Islands flag, which happens generally for legal and insurance purposes. If it is not American, what will the United States do about the ship, its crew, and the Marshall Islands government? Is “freedom of navigation” less valid and valuable when it isn’t an American vessel?
Tuesday, Colonel Warren told reporters the U.S. was “looking into any obligation it may have” for Marshall Islands-flagged ship.
The Marshall Islanders themselves appear clear. Charge d’Affaires Junior Aini told reporters for Bloomberg, “The United States has the full security responsibility over the islands and for the defense of the islands, this is what our treaty says,” referring to a 1986 accord between the U.S. and the island nation that set the terms for independence. The article notes, “The Marshall Islands has no standing army.”
Aini further said in the article that his nation “is barred by the 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.”
Tuesday’s State Department briefing was much less definitive. This was an exchange between Press Spokesman Jeff Rathke and an unnamed reporter as covered by CSPAN:
- 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?
- Rathke: Well, again, we’re gathering more information. I don’t have further reaction at this point.
Col. Warren weakly called the Iranian gunfire “inappropriate.”
This is in no way to suggest the U.S. drive its ships headlong into war with Iran. There is something to be said for cool heads and letting the Iranians think about how much they benefit from holding a Danish ship with a Marshall Islands flag and a mixed crew. The Iranians, after all, sailed away from Yemen last week without engaging the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
But for countries like the Marshall Islands – and Israel – a strong statement of support for an ally is never a mistake. Imagine what the Iranians would have thought if Col. Warren or Mr. Rathke had said:
The Marshall Islands is a friend and an ally of the United States. We are going to take whatever steps we deem appropriate and necessary to ensure the security of the ship and the crew flying under its flag, and the ensure that the phrase ‘freedom of navigation’ means something. Neither friends nor adversaries of the United States should mistake our patient search for the facts in this incident for a cavalier attitude toward our allies and our obligations.
The Marshall Islanders – and the Israelis – would have taken comfort from such a statement. Instead, they are left to wonder whether the American administration’s determination to reach a deal with Iran over nuclear capabilities has rendered the United States unwilling to meet – or even reiterate – its obligations to its friends and allies when the friends and allies believe it “matters.”