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Amid nuclear deal talks, Iran, US warships in 1st tense Mideast brush in a year

Incident follows a series of events attributed to a shadow war between Iran and Israel, including attacks on regional shipping and sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

In an April 2, 2021, photo released by the U.S. Navy, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel cut in front of the U.S. Coast Guard ship USCGC Monomoy in the Persian Gulf. (US Navy via AP)
In an April 2, 2021, photo released by the U.S. Navy, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel cut in front of the U.S. Coast Guard ship USCGC Monomoy in the Persian Gulf. (US Navy via AP)

American and Iranian warships had a tense encounter in the Persian Gulf earlier this month, the first such incident in about a year amid wider turmoil in the region over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal, the US Navy said Tuesday.

Footage released by the US Navy showed a ship commanded by Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard cutting in front of the USCGC Monomoy, causing the Coast Guard vessel to come to an abrupt stop with its engine smoking on April 2.

The Guard also did the same with another Coast Guard vessel, the USCGC Wrangell, said Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet. Such close passes risk the ships colliding at sea.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident in the southern reaches of the Persian Gulf, which resulted in no injuries or damage.

“The US crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio, five short blasts from the ships’ horns, and while the (Iranian) Harth 55 responded to the bridge-to-bridge radio queries, they continued the unsafe maneuvers,” Rebarich said. “After approximately three hours of the US issuing warning and conducting defensive maneuvers, the (Iranian) vessels maneuvered away from the US ships and opened distance between them.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the incident, which involved the Iranian Harth support ship and three Iranian fast-attack craft. The Coast Guard units operate out of Bahrain as part of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, its biggest unit overseas.

In this Wednesday, April 15, 2020, photo made available by US Navy, Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels sail close to US military ships in the Persian Gulf near Kuwait. (US Navy via AP)

The interaction marked the first “unsafe and unprofessional” incident involving the Iranians since April 15, 2020, Rebarich said. However, Iran had largely stopped such incidents in 2018 and nearly in the entirety of 2019, she said.

In 2017, the US Navy recorded 14 instances of what it describes as “unsafe and or unprofessional” interactions with Iranians forces. It recorded 35 in 2016, and 23 in 2015.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a televised speech marking the Iranian New Year, in Tehran, Iran, March 21, 2021. (Office of the Iranian supreme leader via AP)

The incidents at sea almost always involve the Revolutionary Guard, which reports only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Typically, they involve Iranian speedboats armed with deck-mounted machine guns and rocket launchers test-firing weapons or shadowing American aircraft carriers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20 percent of all oil passes.

Some analysts believe the incidents are meant in part to squeeze President Hassan Rouhani’s administration after the 2015 nuclear deal. They include a 2016 incident in which Iranian forces captured and held overnight 10 US sailors who strayed into the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters.

“US naval forces continue to remain vigilant and are trained to act in a professional manner, while our commanding officers retain the inherent right to act in self-defense,” Rebarich said.

This satellite photo provided from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on Wednesday, April 14, 2021. Iran began enriching uranium Friday, April 16, 2021, to its highest level ever at Natanz, edging closer to weapons-grade levels to pressure talks in Vienna aimed at restoring its nuclear deal with world powers after an attack on the site. (Planet Labs via AP)

The incident comes as Iran negotiates with world powers in Vienna over Tehran and Washington returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, talks due to resume Tuesday. It also follows a series of incidents across the Mideast attributed to a shadow war between Iran and Israel, which includes attacks on regional shipping and sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.

Earlier this week, Iran’s Armed Forces chief Mohammad Bagheri threatened to “teach Israel a very good lesson,” appearing to hint the Jewish state was behind a reported attack on an Iranian tanker off Syria’s coast over the weekend, but stopping short of blaming Jerusalem explicitly for the incident.

Bagheri’s threat came the day before Israel sent a delegation to Washington on Monday to voice objection to the US return to the Iran nuclear deal. Israeli officials believe Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state, and adamantly oppose the US returning to the deal, putting Jerusalem at odds with the new White House administration.

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