Maritime problems in the region began in April with what were apparently a series of Iranian responses to American participation in a naval blockade of Yemen. Houthi rebels operating in that country have long been supported by Iran. The Saudi-led blockade was aimed at preventing suspected Iranian arms shipments from reaching the Houthi.
In the midst of the blockade, Tehran refused to allow shipments intended for Yemen to be subjected to international inspection or channeled through a UN aid post established in Djibouti. At the same time, Iranian vessels repeatedly attempted to circumvent blockading ships, and official Iranian television broadcasts portrayed the American and Iranian navies as being sometimes at the brink of conflict.
Even before raising tensions in the Gulf of Aden, Iran made several aggressive moves toward Western-flagged vessels passing through international shipping routes in Iranian waters, where merchant vessels are traditionally granted rights of safe passage. The Iranian navy shadowed an American ship and followed it for a time prior to withdrawing, prompting the US Navy to temporarily escort American and British vessels through the region.
Iran also fired warning shots upon the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris, forcing it to detour further into Iranian waters and seizing it. A similar seizure was attempted on a Singapore-flagged merchant ship, which escaped in the direction of US naval posts.
The incidents involving laser targeting reportedly occurred in the Gulf of Aden, where recent tensions arguably originated. The Iranian navy does not appear to be directly involved, but the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is known to use merchant vessels for the shipment of arms. Given the widespread dominance of Iranian economic sectors by the IRGC, many such ships are owned outright by the paramilitary organization, the officers of which are known to have an even more belligerent attitude toward the West than Iran’s regular army and navy.
It is not known what sort of weapons system might have been involved in the targeting incidents, which proceeded through Wednesday. The US navy believes that it was not a threat to American personnel but is listing it as an incident of harassment. Furthermore, it may have been intended as an act of intimidation or as a contribution to Iranian propaganda, in line with past incidents including not only the earlier maritime clashes but also supposed demonstrations of Iranian military might such as training maneuvers directed against mockup American warships.