ANKARA (Reuters) - Iran said on Wednesday a legal settlement could be reached soon over its seizure of a Marshall-Islands flagged container ship, and the U.S. military said it stopped accompanying commercial ships through the Strait of Hormuz, at least for now.
The Maersk Tigris was diverted on April 28 by Iranian patrol boats in the strait, one of the world's major oil shipping lanes, prompting the United States to send vessels to monitor the situation and to accompany U.S.-flagged vessels passing through the strait.
Danish shipping giant Maersk has insisted on the release of the vessel and its 24 crew members. Iran says the Maersk Tigris would only be let go once a years-old debt case is settled.
"The negotiations between the private complainant and the other party are going on and possibly the issue will be resolved in a day or two," Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as telling a news conference.
"The 24 members of the crew are free and they are benefiting from consular assistance," she said.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said the U.S. Navy had quietly stopped accompanying commercial ships on Tuesday, noting that the original order to carry out the mission had only been for a brief period, which had ended.
Still, a U.S. defense official, speaking later on condition of anonymity, cautioned that it would be very easy to restart the mission and would not rule out such a possibility.
U.S. Navy ships started accompanying U.S.-flagged commercial vessels through the Strait on April 30, a decision taken following the Maersk Tigris' seizure and after Iranian ships shadowed the U.S.-flagged Maersk Kensington on April 24.
Warren stressed that the U.S. Navy would still conduct "routine maritime security operations" in the area.
The Pentagon had previously said that the United States had also started accompanying British-flagged commercial ships. But two U.S. defense officials said on Wednesday there had been initial confusion and no British commercial ships, to their knowledge, were accompanied through the strait.
The Maersk incident occurred at a critical juncture in U.S.-Iranian relations, which could thaw after decades of hostility if negotiations on a nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers including Washington succeed.
It also coincided with heightened tension between regional arch-rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia over the civil war in Yemen, in which they support opposing sides.
A spokesman for Rickmers Shipmanagement, which manages the ship, said it was in contact with the crew.
"They are still on the ship and they have always been onboard the vessel since the Iranians took custody of the ship," the spokesman said.
Maersk, the world's largest container shipping company, said it had sent a letter of undertaking related to the case earlier on Wednesday but would not elaborate on what that undertaking was or when the issue could be resolved.
Maersk chartered the ship, which according to ship operator Rickmers is owned by undisclosed private investors.
Iranian officials have repeatedly said the vessel will not be released until the case is settled. But Maersk has argued that because the vessel is not owned by the company, it has nothing to do with any legal proceedings.
A Rickmers spokesman said on Thursday: “We’ve noted the statements in the media from Iran's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. I can only confirm that Maersk – as stated yesterday – are in dialogue with the court in Iran.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Saul in London, Sabina Zawadzki in Copenhagen and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Toby Chopra and Cynthia Osterman