Amid escalating tensions between US and Iranian vessels in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday warned any military aggression against the Islamic Republic would be met with a harsh response.
In an apparent reference to the US, Khamenei told soldiers at a Tehran air base “the enemy should understand that if it makes any aggression, it will be hit hard and our defense will also include response,” according to the state-run Fars news agency.
Khamenei also called to bolster Iran’s military capabilities “to the extent that the enemy doesn’t even allow itself to think about aggression.”
Referring to Iran’s controversial purchase of the S-300 missile defense system from Russia, Khamenei charged the US “doesn’t respect our nation’s right of defense and actually wants us to remain defenseless so that they can launch aggression against our country whenever they want.”
His remarks come days after US seamen complained of being harassed by Iranian gunboats in the open waters of the Persian Gulf, ramping up tensions.
On Saturday, a top Iranian military official claimed the strength of its navy was deterring the US from launching a military offensive against Tehran.
“The US doesn’t enjoy the power to confront Iran militarily,” Rear Admiral Fadavi, naval commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps told a group of paramilitary volunteers in Arak, according to Fars.
Fadavi — who has previously called the US Iran’s sole enemy and claimed its military capabilities have weakened in recent years — claimed the 97 IRGC speedboats patrolling the Persian Gulf were keeping US warships in the Persian GUlf at bay.
Last Wednesday, a US military official said Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf harassed American naval vessels in three recent incidents, including one that prompted a US warship ship to fire warning shots.
According to US Navy Fifth Fleet spokesman Commander Bill Urban, several IRGC boats maneuvered around two US patrol ships, the USS Squall and USS Tempest, creating a possible collision hazard.
All three encounters last week occurred in international waters in the northern Persian Gulf, Urban said.
A day earlier, US defense officials said four Iranian warships in the Strait of Hormuz sped close to two US Navy guided-missile destroyers with their weapons uncovered in an “dangerous, harassing situation” that could have led to an escalation.
Video of the incident involving the USS Nitze shows American sailors firing flares and sounding the warship’s horn as the Iranian boats approached. A sailor can be heard saying that the weapons on the Iranian boats were “uncovered, manned.”
The Nitze was accompanied on its mission by the USS Mason, another destroyer.
When asked about the Tuesday incident, Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan said his country’s “naval units have the duty of safeguarding the country’s security in the sea and the Persian Gulf.”
OnThursday, Dehghan said that his naval forces will warn or confront any foreign ship entering the country’s territorial waters.
The semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted Gen. Hosein Dehghan as saying that “if any foreign vessel enters our waters, we warn them, and if it’s an invasion, we confront.” He added that Iranian boats patrol to monitor traffic and foreign vessels in its territorial waters.
A defense official told AFP that ships from the US and Iranian navies had interacted more than 300 times in 2015 and more than 250 times the first half of this year.
Ten percent of those encounters were deemed unsafe and unprofessional, the official said.
In January, the Iranian navy briefly captured the crews of two US patrol boats that had, through a series of blunders, strayed into Iranian territorial waters.
The 10 American sailors were released within 24 hours.