Iran's foreign minister said the interception of a cargo ship Tuesday in Iranian waters was a commercial legal matter, not a security or political issue. Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking Wednesday in New York, said the MV Maersk Tigris, a Marshall Islands-flagged ship, was involved in a long-standing Iranian court case, recently concluded, over monetary claims.
Representatives for Maersk, the Danish international conglomerate that had chartered the ship, said they had received no written notification about the case.
Iranian naval ships intercepted the Tigris as it was crossing the Strait of Hormuz, then ordered it farther into Iranian waters. When the ship's master ignored the warning, the Iranians fired shots across the Tigris' bow and boarded the vessel.
U.S. officials Tuesday called the firing of shots "inappropriate" and noted that although the Tigris was in Iranian waters, it was on "an internationally recognized maritime route" at the time of the incident.
The U.S. military directed a guided-missile destroyer and aircraft to observe the interaction between the ship and Iranian forces. The developments briefly raised concerns that the incident, coming during international talks on Iran's nuclear program and increased tensions over the conflict in Yemen, might escalate.
Zarif said that for Iran, "the Persian Gulf is our lifeline and nothing is more important than freedom of navigation in those waters."
Tehran in the past had occasionally threatened to block the strait to advance its opposition to sanctions related to its nuclear program.
The channel is a narrow strip of water separating Oman and Iran. It connects the biggest Gulf oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
VOA United Nations correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report from New York.
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