Iran - shots fired from .50-caliber machine gun in (Gulf )
Anyone concerned by a perceived warming of relations between the U.S. and Iran can rest somewhat assured as of this week: The two countries' interactions, particularly on the high seas, most definitely remain hostile.
Recent days have witnessed repeated incidents in which boats belonging to the navy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps harassed and – according to the U.S. Navy – acted outright dangerously in close proximity to American ships in the Persian Gulf. It remains unclear specifically what Iran hoped to achieve with the encounters. But regardless of what prompted the provocations, the outcome the Iranians sought was all but certain. 'They knew they were going to provoke a response, they just went as far as they could,' says Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 'The clear message is, 'We're here. We are a significant threat. We can demonstrate to everyone in the Gulf that we are capable of doing this and willing to do it.'' Iran could be airing continued grievances or sending a larger message to its adversaries on any one of a series of issues. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, for example, believes the U.S. has not followed through on commitments to the deal it struck with Tehran over its nuclear program. The U.S. continues a military build-up of sorts through massive arms deals with its traditional partners in the Middle East, which also happen to be Iran's sworn enemies. Tehran also might feel empowered by its strengthened relationship with Moscow, as shown through Russia's temporarily deploying warplanes to an airbase in Iran for operations in Syria. The U.N. General Assembly begins in New York a few weeks, where Iran will likely continue its traditional arguments for greater influence in world affairs. And, more generally, Iran is expected to continue its years long campaign to prove it can, and should, serve as the principal power in its neighborhood. Whatever the reason behind this latest activity, it arguably achieved its goal. 'You do not necessarily need to turn this into a publicity issue because you don't have to. Is there any place that didn't get the news?' Cordesman says. The encounters provoked sharp responses from the Department of Defense and the ships themselves, one of which fired warning shots in response. A U.S. Navy spokesman called it 'a dangerous, harassing situation that could have led to further escalation.' On Tuesday, four high-speed IRGC vessels came within 300 yards of the U.S. destroyer Nitze while it was exiting the very narrow Strait of Hormuz. The ship exercised the U.S. Navy's typical escalation of warnings, from blasting its horn and sending radio warnings to firing flares. On Wednesday, Iranian vessels approached the U.S. coastal patrol ships Tempest and Squall in the northern Gulf, and did not respond when hailed by the two ships' radios. The Tempest fired warning flares, and the vessels came close enough to the Squall for it to fire warning shots from its .50-caliber machine gun. The Navy said the warning shots did not cause any damage. 'This situation presented a drastically increased risk of collision, and the Iranian vessel refused to safely maneuver in accordance with internationally recognized maritime rules of the road, despite several request and warnings via radio, and visual and audible warnings from both U.S. ships,' Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a spokesman for the Navy's 5th Fleet, told the U.S. Naval Institute. He said the Iranian ships' high rate of speed as they approached the U.S. ships in international waters, along with their bow crossings at short range and disregard of multiple warning attempts, 'created a dangerous, harassing situation that could have led to further escalation.' The circumstances of these latest incidents, particularly the swarming effect the Iranian navy vessels hoped to achieve, remain a central concern of American Navy commanders whose ships represent high-profile targets in contentious parts of the world. Experts in these kinds of military encounters say the U.S. Navy maintains the ability to defend its vessels from an attack like these, particularly if its ships were operating in a situation in which they didn't have to exercise an abundance of caution, as was the case this week. 'This just may be an IRGC decision to periodically test the U.S. Navy and its rules of engagement,' says Paul Hughes, an expert in international security in the Middle East and Africa with the U.S. Institutes of Peace. 'They're trying to do that in a very constrained way, and in a very constrained place, itself – the Straits of Hormuz.' 'It will continue,' Hughes adds. 'This is not a new phenomenon. They have been doing this for a long time, and it's just another test of the Navy, to see how the U.S. responds, and, 'Maybe if we're lucky we can scare the ship's captain to divert off its course and then we have a big propaganda victory there.''