A US Navy patrol ship fired warning shots to ward off Iranian fast-attack boats in the Persian Gulf on Monday, marking the second run-in between the two countries’ naval forces this month.
Three boats belonging to the navy of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps abruptly approached the USS Firebolt and Coast Guard USCGC Baranoff in the northern Persian Gulf and ignored both radio and loud-hailer warnings, the US’ Fifth Fleet said.
The IRGC vessels came within 70 yards of the US patrol ships, but backed off after crew members on the USS Firebolt fired warning shots.
The two US ships “were conducting routine maritime security operations in international waters during the time of the incident,” the Navy said, adding that such actions increase the risk of collision and unintended escalation.
The encounter follows a similar run-in between the two navies earlier this month in the Gulf.
Three IRGC fast-attack vessels and a twin-hulled Harth-55 support vessel harassed two US Coast Guard ships in the southern Gulf on April 2 for up to three hours, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
The Harth-55 came within 70 yards of the USCGC Monomoy and Wrangell and repeatedly crossed into the ships’ paths, forcing their crews to make defensive maneuvers.
The IRGC’s navy has a history of testing US ships in the Gulf, but the two incidents mark the first of their kind this year. Reports of such run-ins ceased in 2018, though it is unclear why.
In 2016, the crews of two US Navy command boats were captured and held by the IRGC’s navy for several hours after inadvertently drifting into Iran’s territorial waters around Farsi Island.
The latest encounters come as the US administration of President Joe Biden begins a second round of indirect talks with Iranian officials in Vienna over Tehran’s nuclear program.
US officials are seeking to rejoin the 2015 nuclear accord, which was abandoned by the Donald Trump administration and replaced with a campaign of economic sanctions to limit Iran's reach across the Middle East. The so-called "maximum pressure" campaign failed to halt the IRGC's ambitions.
Biden administration officials have been circumspect in comments about Iran's liability for continuing attacks by militias supported by the IRGC in the region.
Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of US military forces in the Middle East, suggested on Tuesday that the latest incidents in the Persian Gulf may not have been authorized by Iran’s leaders.
“The activities we typically see from the IRGC navy are not necessary activities that are directed by the supreme leader or from the Iranian state, rather irresponsible actions by local commanders on scene,” McKenzie said at a virtual event at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.
“We’re very careful to ensure that we don’t get into a provocative cycle as a result of that,” McKenzie said.