Iranian navy vessels came within 10 metres of American warships in the Persian Gulf in what the US navy described as a series of “dangerous and harassing approaches”.
The close encounters on Wednesday and the aggressive tactics pursued by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy, visible from photos and video released by the US Fifth Fleet, represent a blow to the Trump administration's claims to have "restored deterrence" in its relations with Iran.
Coming on the same day that the US navy said that a Russian warplane performed an “unsafe” intercept of one of its surveillance planes over the Mediterranean, the incidents also served as a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic has not ended dangerous military rivalries around the world.
According the US Naval Forces Central Command, 11 small Iranian boats circled six US warships.
“The IRGCN vessels repeatedly crossed the bows and sterns of the US vessels at extremely close range and high speeds,” a statement said, adding that the Iranian vessels performed multiple crossings of two of the US ships, coming as close as 10 yards.
“US crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio, five short blasts from the ships’ horns and long-range acoustic noise-maker devices, but received no response,” the Central Command statement said.
The Iranian sailors only responded to bridge-to-bridge radio contacts after an hour of manoeuvring, and then moved away.
“The IRGCN’s dangerous and provocative actions increased the risk of miscalculation and collision,” the US statement said, adding that the Iranian actions were in violation of maritime conventions and international law.
Pictures and video released by the US navy show multiple small boats, moving at speed and throwing up pronounced wakes behind them, performing sharp turns around the American vessels.
After the drone killing of the top IRGC general Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad in January, the Trump administration claimed it had "restored deterrence" against Iranian military ambitions in the region.
However, there have been several rocket attacks on Iraqi bases housing US and allied troops since then, and Iran’s naval forces have been increasingly assertive. On Tuesday, they boarded a Hong Kong-flagged tanker and diverted it into Iranian waters before releasing it.
"As expected, Iran is continuing to flex muscle amid the global pandemic, because unlike what Iran hawks keep telling you, it's neither deterred nor about to hit the pause button on tensions with the US to focus on public health," Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US, wrote on Twitter.
In the incident over the Mediterranean on Wednesday, a Russian Su-35 jet was said by the US navy to have performed a high-speed manoeuvre, flying upside-down just 25ft in front of a US P-8 surveillance plane. – Guardian