WASHINGTON – For the second time in a month, ships from Iran and the United States came dangerously close in the Persian Gulf on Monday evening, the Navy said on Tuesday, and tensions between the two nations escalated as their negotiators broke the 2015 renewal talks resumed nuclear deals.
According to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, three high-speed attack vessels from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were sailing near a Navy coast patrol ship and a Coast Guard patrol boat as the two American ships patrolled international waters in the northern part of the US.
At around 8 p.m. local time on Monday, the Iranian boats quickly and repeatedly approached the American ships, the Firebolt and the Baranoff – at a point that, according to 68 meters, was only 68 meters away to a Navy statement.
The American crews issued several warnings over bridge-to-bridge radios and speakers, but the Iranian ships continued their close-up maneuvers, the Navy said. When the crew of the Firebolt fired warning shots, the Iranian ships “moved away from the US ships at a safe distance,” the Navy said.
It was the second time in a month that Iran conducted harassment maneuvers against Navy or Coast Guard ships in the region after a year of relative maritime peace.
That interaction was the first “unsafe and unprofessional” episode Iran has been involved in since April 15, 2020, Cmdr said. Rebecca Rebarich, a Fifth Fleet spokeswoman. In 2017, the Navy recorded 14 such harassing interactions with Iranian forces, compared to 35 in 2016 and 23 in 2015.
In 2016, Iranian forces captured and held overnight 10 US seamen who strayed into the territorial waters of the Islamic Republic.
However, such incidents largely stopped in 2018 and most of 2019, Commander Rebarich said. The Revolutionary Guards were almost always involved in the episodes at sea, reporting only to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The earlier encounter that month took place on April 2, when a Revolutionary Guard Corps ship, the Harth 55, accompanied by three rapid attack vessels harassed two Coast Guard cutters, the Wrangell and the Monomoy, while doing routine security patrols in international waters southern Persian Gulf, said the Navy in a separate statement issued earlier on Tuesday. This episode was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The Harth 55 repeatedly cut off both US ships from extreme distances and came up to 70 meters, the Navy said. The American crews issued several bridge-to-bridge radio warnings, five short shots from the ships’ horns, but the Iranian ships carried on, the Navy said.
After about three hours, during which the American ships issued warnings and carried out defensive maneuvers to avoid collisions, the Iranian ships moved away.
American military analysts found that the Iranian warships were targeting some of the smallest and most lightly armed Navy and Coast Guard ships in the region, suggesting that the Iranians might want to make a statement without high risk of killing their people .
Naval cruisers and destroyers, far larger than the ships that have been molested and carrying a much more deadly number of weapons, have special 5-inch grenades – developed after the fatal attack on destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000 – that Specially designed to take away small rapid attack vehicles like this one from the Iranians. But the American ships targeted this month do not have such weapons on board.
The Monday evening incident came just days after a leaked audio tape provided a glimpse into the power struggles of Iranian leaders behind the scenes. On the tape, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Revolutionary Guard Corps had been in charge, suspended many government decisions and ignored diplomatic advice.
In an extraordinary moment on the tape, Mr. Zarif left the revered official line of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Guard’s elite quds force, the outward-looking arm of the Iranian security apparatus that was led by the US in January 2020.
“The Islamic Republic is ruled by the military,” Zarif said in a three-hour conversation that was part of an oral history project that documented the work of the current government.
John Ismay Contribution to reporting.