Iran tried to abscond with a unique American unmanned surface vessel this week. It was the latest attempt by Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to show that it can strike wherever and whenever it wants.
US Central Command said Iran had attempted an "illegal" seizure of a US unmanned vessel. The attempt was made shortly after Iranian attacks on US bases in Syria in mid-August.
The incident occurred in the Persian Gulf. The US mentioned the incident and praised the professionalism of the USS Thunderbolt, which prevented Iran's illegal actions. Central Command accused Iran of destabilizing, illegal and unprofessional activity in the region.
The Iranian plan to grab and tow an American sea drone, which is what an unmanned surface vessel is, represents yet another attempt to humiliate the US and show that it can do what it wants in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
Iran doesn't have a very large navy, and the IRGC uses mostly small, fast boats. However, Tehran has shown in recent years that it can use innovative methods to target ships in the area. Here is a partial list of recent Iranian activity:
A partial list of Iranian naval activity
In May 2019, four commercial ships were mined off of Fujairah's coastline in the Gulf of Oman. Two of the ships were Saudi, one was Norwegian, and one was from the United Arab Emirates.
The following month, on June 13, Iran attacked two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. These included the Kokuka Courageous, flagged in Panama and operated by a company from Japan; and the Front Altair, which was operated by a company based in Norway.
On June 20, Iran shot down a US Global Hawk drone over the Gulf of Oman. In July, the USS Boxer was harassed by an Iranian drone, which was countered by an anti-drone system.
Then in July, Iran seized the British-flagged Stena Impero after harassing the British Heritage tanker the same month. This was in response, Iran claimed, to the British boarding the Grace 1 Iranian tanker on July 4 in the Mediterranean.
Later, in September 2019, Iranian drones were used to attack oil facilities at Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia.
In April 2020, 11 Iranian IRGC fast boats conducted a "dangerous and harassing" encounter with the USS Lewis B. Puller, USS Paul Hamilton, USS Firebolt, USS Sirocco, USCGC Wrangell and USCGC Maui. One Iranian ship came within 10 yards of the American ships.
In July 2020, Iranian hijackers seized the Gulf Sky tanker off the coast of the UAE and sailed it to an area near Bandar Abbas.
In January 2021, Iranian authorities seized the tanker Hankuk Chemi in the Strait of Hormuz.
In February, the MV Helios Ray, a vehicle carrier, was sailing from the Saudi Port of Dammam to Singapore when it was struck by some kind of blast. Iran was allegedly behind this attack, the one on the Hyperion Ray in March and against a third vessel.
In late April 2021, several Iranian fast boats rapidly approached the USS Firebolt and the USCGC Baranof.
In late July 2021, the Mercer Street oil tanker was attacked by drones in the Gulf of Oman, and two crew members were killed.
On August 4, IRGC members boarded the MV Asphalt Princess but then left the ship.
In November 2021, an Iranian helicopter came within 25 yards of the USS Essex.
In November 2021, the IRGC also almost clashed with the US as it tried to seize the MV Sothys.
On March 4, 2022, three IRGC ships harassed US ships for several hours. In that incident, the IRGC catamaran Shahid Nazeri came within 25 yards of the USCGC Robert Goldman, the US Navy said.
In June 2022, an IRGC boat approached the USS Sirocco "head-on at a dangerously high speed," the US said. US forces used a loud horn to warn the Iranians.
On August 30, the slow-moving Iranian support ship Shahid Baziar, from Iran's IRGC Navy, was "unlawfully towing a US Saildrone Explorer unmanned vessel in international waters of the Arabian Gulf," the US said.
These incidents illustrate how Iran operates with impunity, attacking ships when it wants to. There are virtually no responses to Iran's harassment. Tehran has now tried to steal a US unmanned vessel drone and tow it to Iran.
The US wants to roll out more unmanned vessels to conduct patrols from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea. However, if Iran can pick off the drones, then the US idea of using them may backfire. Either way, Iran shows it can humiliate the US when it sees fit.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.