Iran seen provoking tensions with US at sea

Given number of incidents, all it takes is one confrontation to get out of hand for whole situation could escalate.

A military vessel from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that approached a US warship crossing the Strait of Hormuz, last July.

2016/09/18 Issue: 73 Page: 16

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

As tensions between Russia and the United States over Syria abated slightly, tensions between Iran and the United States continued to build, risking an all-out confron­tation between the US Navy and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Naval units of the IRGC have sys­tematically harassed US Navy war­ships in the Gulf at least 30 times since January. This represents a 50% increase when compared to the same time period of 2015. In each case, an Iranian vessel or ves­sels approached the US warships within weapons range.

According to a report by US Navy Commander Jeremy Vaughan, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute think-tank, IRGC boats have approached US vessels at a distance that could have compro­mised the security of the vessels and the sailors and US Marines who serve aboard those ships.

“On at least three occasions, they closed to a distance that could make a collision more likely or could render US ships nearly de­fenceless to a boat packed with ex­plosive charges,” wrote Vaughan, who served on a number of deploy­ments aboard ships in the Gulf.

Recent altercations include Ira­nian IRGC-Navy craft interfering with the USS Nitze, a destroyer, in late August and the USS Firebolt, a coastal patrol boat, in early Sep­tember.

“Incremental erosion by Iranian vessels of the safety zone sur­rounding US ships and a bias by some US commanders towards restraint have thus created a situa­tion in which Iranian warships are operating at distances that would have been in the past, and should be at present, considered impru­dent,” Vaughan wrote.

He said that “quiet and indirect diplomacy” is needed to prevent “an accident or an incident” in­volving US and Iranian naval forc­es that could adversely affect the broader US-Iran relationship.

The US Navy officer said if the trend continues it could set the stage for a wider confrontation be­tween Iran and the United States. If the harassment continues, it is only a matter of time before a confrontation takes place, the out­come of which would drag the re­gion into another Middle East war, endangering the stability of Gulf states and possibly affecting the flow of oil through the Gulf. That, in turn, would have a serious effect on the world’s economy.

The Americans managed to steer the Iranians clear of their armada in the Gulf. However, given the number of incidents, all it takes is one confrontation to get out of hand for the whole situation could escalate.

In 2015, there were 300 close en­counters between the IRGC-Navy and US Navy vessels, culminat­ing in a highly provocative rocket launch near the USS Harry S. Tru­man aircraft carrier, Vaughan wrote.

In January, the IRGC-Navy seized ten riverine command sail­ors who had strayed into its waters and directly overflew the Truman with an unmanned aerial vehicle. In the last month, IRGC-Navy forc­es approached four US warships, drawing so close there was a dan­ger of collision. The USS Squall, a patrol craft, fired warning shots at the Iranians.

“Navy commanders are taught that the use of force in self-defence requires the presence of all three components of the “threat trian­gle”: capability, opportunity and intent, Vaughan said.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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