Iran seen provoking tensions with US at sea
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.