On Monday, 26th of April 2021, around 8 P.M local time, an American Navy patrol ship fired warning shots towards an Iranian patrol boat in the northern part of the Persian Gulf. The three Iranian speed boats belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) dangerously approached two ships belonging to the US Fifth Fleet, namely the Cyclone-class patrol coastal ship USS Firebolt and the US Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Baranoff.
The Iranian vessels came within 68 yards (62 meters) of the United States ships, after ignoring multiple radio, bridge-to-bridge, and loud-hailer warnings. The warnings issued by the USS Firebolt made the Iranian vessels back away. According to the US Navy, the three Iranian boats were armed. The United States accused the IRGCN of “unsafe and unprofessional” actions in the Persian Gulf, a strategic region, where around 20% of all oil is transported.
It is the second event of this kind in less than a month. The first one occurred on the 2nd of April, when, dour IRGCN ships came close to two US Coast Guard cutters. One of the Iranian ships, Harth 55, came very close to the USCGC Wrangell, which hardly succeeded in avoiding a collision between the two. According to footage leaked by the US Navy, another Revolutionary Guard ship cut the road of the USCGC Monomoy, making the US ship suddenly stop its engine in order to avoid a crash. The two incidents in the Persian Gulf involved Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which only report to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This happens in the context of tensioned relations between the United States and Iran, due to the negotiations that have started in Vienna for the US to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agreement initially entered into force in 2015 was interrupted when the Trump administration decided to withdraw in May 2018, which was followed by Iran no longer respecting the provisions of the treaty. Now with the started negotiations for resuming the JCPOA, the relation between the two states is still very complicated, as Iran does not want to reduce its nuclear power until the US would lift all restrictions, while the United States does not want to lift its restrictions and rejoin the nuclear deal until Iran would get back to complying with the provisions of the agreement.
In this respect, some analysts claim that the incidents aim at putting pressure on the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, because of the nuclear power-related problems. Following the tensions that arose after the JCPOA was signed in 2015, there were more such incidents, at sea, between the United States and Iran since then. In 2015 there were 23 such incidents, in 2016 35 dangerous events between the US and Iran occurred and in 2017 there were 14. Throughout 2018 and 2019 almost no clash between the two states was identified at sea, but, since last year dangerous actions between the two began to happen again from time to time.
Even though the relations have been tensed between the United States and Iran, including the maritime episodes, the shootings fired by the US Navy on the 26th of April were the first ones directed towards Iran and happening at sea, in almost four years. The last time when this happened was in 2019 when the USS Thunderbolt fired in order to ward off an Iranian Guard vessel.
According to Navy officials, the US Navy stated that the American ships in the Persian Gulf were conducting operations of maritime security in international waters when the event took place. They added that such incidents are dangerous and that they can lead to unintended escalation of the already existing tensions between the two states. The officials also declared that the practices like this one, conducted by Iran, represent in fact a violation of international rules governing sea operations and calling for Iran to respect the international law regarding maritime safety: “The IRGCN’s actions increased the risk of miscalculation and/or collision, were not in accordance with the internationally recognized Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) ‘rules of the road.”, a spokesman of the US Navy declared.
Cdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet described how the incident went on: “The U.S. crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loud-hailer devices, but the vessels continued their close-range maneuvers […] The crew of Firebolt then fired warning shots, and the (Guard) vessels moved away to a safe distance from the U.S. vessels”. Further, she said that during the incident the United States forces tried to reduce the level of danger in order to minimize the chances of an unwanted clash: “Throughout the interaction, US forces proactively communicated with the IRGCN vessels and executed pre-planned responses to reduce the risk of miscalculation, avoid a collision, and to de-escalate the situation.” But, at the same time, Cdr. Rebecca Rebarich stated that the United States Navy forces reserved the right to use self-defense in case of imminent danger: “U.S. naval forces continue to remain vigilant and are trained to act in a professional manner, while our commanding officers retain the inherent right to act in self-defense,”.
The head of the United States military forces in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, while being at a virtual event of the American Enterprise Institute, declared: “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 the scene”. After suggesting that the action of the three Iranian boats may not have been authorized by the leaders in Tehran, he added that the US will be careful in this area so as not to contribute to the escalation and to get involved in conflictual actions there: “We’re very careful to ensure that we don’t get into a provocative cycle as a result of that”.
Neither the Iranian officials nor the Iranian press issued any immediate acknowledgment of the incident.
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