US vessel fires warning shots at Iranian patrol boats

After months of relative maritime calm between Iran and the United States, Teheran has stepped up aggressive behaviour at sea. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A US Coast Guard cutter fired 30 warning shots after 13 Iranian fast patrol boats menaced a group of US Navy ships sailing in the Strait of Hormuz, the Pentagon said Monday (May 10).

The incident marked the third time in little more than a month that vessels from Iran and the United States have come dangerously close in or near the Persian Gulf, escalating tensions between the two nations as their negotiators have resumed talks toward renewing the 2015 nuclear deal.

In the latest incident, the Coast Guard cutter Maui fired the warning shots after the attack craft from Iran's Revolutionary Guard "conducted unsafe and unprofessional manoeuvres" while operating close to six Navy ships and one submarine sailing through the Strait into the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon spokesman, Mr John Kirby, told reporters.

Two Coast Guard cutters, including the Maui, were escorting the Navy ships through the relatively narrow Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf, Pentagon officials said.

The US vessels blew warning whistles, and then the Maui fired warning shots from a .50-calibre machine gun as the Iranian vessels roared within 150 yards (137m) before breaking off, American officials said.

After months of relative maritime calm between Iran and the United States, Teheran has stepped up aggressive behaviour at sea, returning to a pattern that for several years was common.

On April 26, three fast-attack craft from Iran's Revolutionary Guard sailed as close as 68 yards to a Navy coastal patrol ship and a Coast Guard patrol boat - the Firebolt and the Baranoff - as the two American vessels were patrolling international waters in the northern part of the Persian Gulf, the Navy said.

On April 2, a Revolutionary Guard ship, the Harth 55, accompanied by three fast-attack vessels, harassed two Coast Guard cutters, the Wrangell and the Monomoy, as they were conducting routine security patrols in the international waters of the southern Persian Gulf, the Navy said.

After about three hours of the American ships issuing warnings and conducting defensive manoeuvres to avoid collisions, the Iranian vessels moved away.

That interaction was the first "unsafe and unprofessional" episode involving Iran since April 15, 2020, said Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a 5th Fleet spokeswoman. In 2017, the Navy recorded 14 such harassing interactions with Iranian forces, compared with 35 in 2016 and 23 in 2015.

In 2016, Iranian forces captured and held overnight 10 US sailors who strayed into the Islamic republic's territorial waters.

However, such incidents had mostly stopped in 2018 and for nearly all of 2019, Cmdr Rebarich said. The episodes at sea have almost always involved the Revolutionary Guard, who report only to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

US military analysts said that in the two encounters in April, the Iranian warships targeted some of the smallest and most lightly armed Navy and Coast Guard ships in the region, indicating the Iranians perhaps wanted to make a statement without a high risk of getting their people killed.

Navy cruisers and destroyers, which are far larger than the ships that were harassed and carry a much deadlier complement of weapons, have special 5-inch shells - developed after the deadly attack in 2000 on the destroyer Cole in Yemen - devised to take out small fast-attack craft like those from the Iranians.

But the US vessels targeted recently have no such weaponry aboard.

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