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US Navy: Iranian provocation ‘creates unnecessary risk of escalation’

Awad Mustafa

Published: Updated:

Despite increasing Iranian provocation, the “US Navy will continue to operate as it always has”, a senior commander told Al Arabiya English.

The latest of these provocations came on August 13 when an Iranian drone came within 300 meters of US fighters near the USS Nimitz, and only six days earlier, the Navy said an Iranian drone came within only 30 meters of an F-18 preparing to land on the carrier.

Since January, Iranian forces were involved in 14 unsafe or unprofessional interactions, said Commander Bill Urban, spokesman for the US Naval Central Command (NAVCENT), in Bahrain.

“The US Navy will continue to operate as it always has in the region; with professionalism and in accordance with widely accepted maritime rules and norms, grounded in international law. We expect the same from any nation’s professional maritime forces,” Cmdr Urban said in an emailed interview.

Last year, Iranian maritime forces have engaged in 35 unsafe or unprofessional engagements.

The US Navy’s chief of naval operations, Adm. John Richardson, last year suggested this could be the “new normal” with Iran.

“This idea of competition at sea, what is the new normal, we have to be mindful that we don’t become complacent as things get steadily busier,” Richardson said.

The provocations raise safety concerns and escalation, Cmdr Urban said.

“This type of behavior is not in accordance with international maritime customs, norms and laws,” he said. “Each instance creates an unnecessary risk of escalation”.

The majority of interactions involve the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, he said, “but we do, on occasion, have unsafe or unprofessional interactions with regular Iranian naval vessels”.

Incendiary Iran statements

While the NAVCENT spokesman played down the possibilities of conflict, the Iranians on the other hand have been incendiary in their statements since earlier this summer.

The chief commander of the IRGC Navy warned in July that Iran’s enemies, particularly the United States, would suffer heavy losses in the Arabian Gulf if they showed any aggression against the Islamic Republic.

“We have not spared even 24 hours to upgrade IRGC’s naval capabilities against enemies, particularly America,” Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi said, adding that the IRGC Navy has considered the United States its primary enemy since the 1980s and has prepared to confront it.

Admiral Fadavi, however, is currently facing one of the largest battle ships in the planet, the USS Nimitz.

The supercarrier, which has been launched in 1972, is the lead ship in its class, the Nimitz class ships.

The Nimitz not only is home to 90 aircraft, nine squadrons five of which are attack fleets, it is also equipped with PHALANX Close-In Weapons System Gatling guns designed to take out any approaching enemy vessel.

“Fadavi’s remarks come at a time when US military officials increasingly complain about the IRGC Navy’s harassment of American naval assets in the Gulf,” said Ahmad Majidyar in an article authored for the Middle East Institute

“American officials warn that the IRGC Navy’s repeated provocations could lead to miscalculations and dangerous confrontations in the Gulf,” added Majidyar who is also the director of IranObserved Project at MEI.

Iranian Navy ship during exercises at the Gulf of Oman in 2012 (AP)
Iranian Navy ship during exercises at the Gulf of Oman in 2012 (AP)

“As tension between Washington and Tehran over the latter’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism is escalating, Iranian officials are also increasingly calling on – and at times threatening – the US military to leave the Middle East region”.

On the potential for conflict, Cmdr Urban said: “We continue to advocate for all maritime forces to conform to international maritime customs, standards and laws”.

“There is a global standard for professional maritime conduct, and we expect all professional navies to act in accordance with those standards,” he added.

‘Theatrical’

Saudi Colonel (Retd.) Ibrahim Al Mereii described the engagements as theater for the American public.

“These unsafe engagements are more theatrical than anything and they represent no threat to either side,” Col Al Mereii told Al Arabiya English.

“The reason these engagements are publicized in the American media is to keep reminding the US public the reasons for the US presence in the region,” he said.

Despite that, Al Mereii added, the Iranian forces are also using the opportunity to gather intelligence information as well as response times from the US forces present in the region.

Captured US Sailors in Iran (AP)
Captured US Sailors in Iran (AP)


“Even the arrest last year of the US sailors by the Iranian forces was over blown as the officers were released shortly after their capture,” he added.

Regardless of the provocations and actions, the Iranian threats have not disrupted maritime trade through the Gulf, which is key to the survival of both Iran and the Arabian Gulf nations.

“Two of the primary purposes of forward deployed US naval forces are to preserve the free flow of commerce through international waterways and to deter potential adversaries and trans-national terrorists from attempting to affect or disrupt that flow,” Cmdr Urban explained.

“We have not observed any adverse effect on the free flow of commerce throughout the region’s waterways”.