Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) boats have harassed US warships, according to a new report, coming dangerously close. The incidents happened in the Persian Gulf according to CNN with one ship coming within "10 yards of colliding," CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr tweeted Wednesday.
The US says that the IRGC vessels conducted unsafe and unprofessional actions, coming around ships' bows and sterns at close range in the North Arabian Gulf. They harassed the USS Lewis Puller which was supporting US 5th fleet operations. The Puller is operating Apache helicopters as a floating base, which some have alleged is a message to Iran.
The Iranian naval harassment comes as Iranian media recently reported it had conducted underwater mapping last week for its submarines. A Hong-Kong flagged tanker also reported being boarded by armed men, suspected to be linked to Iran, before the men left on Tuesday. Last July the USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone using jamming equipment.
Iran is struggling to confront a massive coronavirus outbreak and it has been angry that US sanctions are not being lifted. It has been seeking to harass US forces in Iraq. It sent the head of its national security council to Iraq in March to coordinate pressure against the US and sent IRGC head Esmail Ghaani to Iraq in early April to speak with pro-Iranian groups.
The US carried out airstrikes against Iran's IRGC leader Qasem Soleimani in January, killing him and a key Iraqi militia leader. Iran's retaliation with ballistic missile strikes in mid-January and the US recently withdrew from a half-dozen posts in Iraq, consolidating forces and moving air defense to Iraq.
Reports indicate the US had come up with plans to strike at pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. After rocket attacks killed US and UK personnel in early March, the US responded with airstrikes against militia warehouses. There have also been airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets, which Syria blames on Israel.
Iran has been supplying the Houhti rebels in Yemen with missiles and drones to attack Saudi Arabia. The US navy's USS Normandy intercepted a shipment of Iranian arms for Yemen in February. In December the USS Forrest Sherman also stopped an Iranian shipment.
Tensions rose last May with Iran as the US warned of Iranian attacks. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Iraq and then National Security Advisor John Bolton warned of US reprisals. Iran carried out mining operations against four ships in May 2019 and then two more ships in June. Then it downed a US drone and launched attacks on Saudi Arabia in September using drones and cruise missiles.
In addition, Iran sent weapons to Iraq to strike at Saudi Arabia in May and also encouraged Houthis to carry out a drone swarm attack on Shaybah in August 2019. Iran also prodded Iraqi militias to carry out dozens of rocket attacks, killing a US contractor in December. Then Iran sent protesters to storm the US embassy in Baghdad. It shelled the embassy as well.
Iran moved ballistic missiles to Iraq in 2018 and the fall of 2019. Pro-Iran militias also shelled a US diplomatic compound in Basra.
Iranian fast boats have been a threat for years. Iran has waylaid US and UK sailors in the past. In 2016 US CENTCOM head Joseph Votel warned Iran about harassing US ships. Iranian fast boats had harassed the USS Squall, USS New Orleans, USS Stout and USS Nitze in July and August 2016, coming within several hundred yards of them.
They continued their actions in 2018, coming within 300 yards of the Essex amphibious ready group. Fearful that US President Donald Trump might order the sinking of the Iranian boats they kept their distance for other parts of 2018 and 2019. In April 2019 an Iranian drone flew over the USS Eisenhower Aircraft carrier.
The US was lucky to have US Marines board the USS Boxer last year with an MRZR LMADIS air defense system that was able to take down the Iranian drone. However countries in the Gulf want to reduce tensions with Iran. Iran has proposed a maritime agreement with Oman. It has also hosted Russia and China for naval drills.
Iran has been showing off new drones and cruise missiles in recent years in naval drills. However, Iran's navy and its IRGC fast boats are no match for the US. They could be destroyed in a day of serious fighting. But they are good for harassment, mining and being able to strike at a time of their choosing.
Iran is aware the US navy has suffered recent challenges with the coronavirus outbreak aboard a carrier in the Pacific. It may want to test US resolve. Sending eleven IRGC vessels to conduct "dangerous and harassing approaches" within 10 yards would imply that Iran is trying to provoke an incident.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.