Four patrol boats operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps harassed an American destroyer on Tuesday near the Straits of Hormuz, a U.S. defense official told Reuters on Wednesday.
Two of the Iranian boats came within 300 yards of the USS Nitze in a manner that the unnamed official called “unsafe and unprofessional.” The IRGC boats harassed the Nitze by “conducting a high speed intercept and closing within a short distance of Nitze, despite repeated warnings,” the official added.
The Nitze attempted to communicate with the IRGC vessels 12 times and fired 10 warning flares in the direction of the two closest boats. “The Iranian high rate of closure… created a dangerous, harassing situation that could have led to further escalation, including additional defensive measures by Nitze,” the official said.
The incident is the latest Iranian challenge to American presence in the Persian Gulf and its commitment to keep the area open to international shipping. IRGC naval forces captured ten American sailors and two boats in January, an incident that Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called “outrageous, unprofessional and inconsistent with international law” during a Senate hearing in March. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson echoed Carter’s assessment while announcing the result of the Navy’s investigation into the seizure in June. “Those boats and crewmembers had every right to be where they were that day,” Richardson said. “The investigation concluded that Iran violated international law by impeding the boats’ innocent passage transit, and they violated our sovereign immunity by boarding, searching, and seizing the boats, and by photographing and video recording the crew.”
The U.S. Navy reported last month that in 2015, there were close to 300 encounters or “interactions” between American and Iranian naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. While most of the encounters were not considered to be harassment, the behavior of the Iranian navy was found to be less disciplined than that of other navies. Lt. Forrest Griggs, the operations officer of the USS New Orleans, explained that risks arise from the unpredictable behavior and uncertain intent of the Iranian vessels. “It’s very common for them to come up to within 300, 500 yards of us, and then they’ll turn, or parallel us and stop,” he said.
In December 2015, an IRGC boat fired rockets within 1,500 yards of the USS Harry S Truman, an action that was termed “highly provocative” by U.S. Central Command spokesman Cmdr. Kyle Raines. In April 2015, Iran seized the Marshall Islands-flagged Maersk Tigris and held it for ten days in violation of international law. The next month, Iranian vessels fired on a Singapore-flagged cargo ship after it refused to sail into Iranian waters, desisting only after the UAE dispatched coast guard boats to help the distressed ship.
An Iranian surveillance aircraft came unusually close to a Navy helicopter from the USS Carl Vinson in March 2015, a month after the IRGC sunk a mock U.S. aircraft carrier during military exercises. The exercises were broadcast on state television with a quote attributed to the first leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: “If the Americans are ready to be buried at the bottom of the waters of the Persian Gulf – so be it.” A year before, Iran broadcast a simulation of its forces attacking Israel and the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on state television.
Vice Admiral Kevin Donegan, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, observed in November that Iran’s “malign behavior” at sea had not changed since the announcement of the nuclear deal four months earlier.
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