US Navy warships stationed in the Persian Gulf region have stepped up patrols in the Strait of Hormuz, the busy passage for merchant shipping, in response to recent moves by Iran to seize two tankers, the latest a sign of growing tensions between Iran and the United States. .
“Iran’s actions are unacceptable,” Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the commander of US naval forces in the region, said in an interview Monday at the naval base here in Bahrain. He was speaking several days after riding a Navy Guided Missile Destroyer through the Strait of Hormuz, with leaders from the French and British navies, in an effort to send a unified message to Iran.
Iran has “harassed, attacked or interfered” with 15 internationally flagged merchant ships since 2021, Pentagon and White House officials said this month, as they announced a decision to increase patrols of ships, drones and planes of the United States Navy, as well as those of United States allies in the region.
More recently, the Iranian Navy flew a helicopter over the deck of a tanker named Soft Advantage end of April. The Marshall Islands-flagged ship had been chartered by Chevron, en route to Houston from Kuwait, and according to Lloyd’s List, which tracks the shipment, was carrying 750,000 barrels of crude oil.
Commandos from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps descended on the deck of the Advantage Sweet via a rope and took control of the ship just after it passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran then showed a party video seizure on state television.
Six days later, a dozen speedboats of the Iranian Navy surrounded a second tanker, this time the Panamanian-flagged Niovi, after leaving a dry dock in Dubai, en route to another port in the United Arab Emirates. The ship was forced to divert to Iranian territorial waters.
The United States “will not allow foreign or regional powers to compromise the freedom of navigation in the Middle Eastern waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz,” said John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council. from the White House, when he announced the increase in the United States Navy. patrols earlier this month.
The Strait of Hormuz, which is bordered by the United Arab Emirates and Oman on one side and Iran on the other, is as narrow as 21 miles. But he sees steady merchant ship traffic, especially among the tankers that supply oil to the world.
The plan, at least for now, is not to send additional Navy ships or planes to the region, Pentagon officials said, but rather to move those already in the region more frequently. through the Strait of Hormuz, to send a signal to Iran that the United States and its allies are watching and must be closer if any further incidents occur, said Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, spokesman for the Navy’s Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.
The navy’s Fifth Fleet operations cover 2.5 million square miles of water, from the Persian Gulf to parts of the Indian Ocean, and more of its ships will now be concentrated in the area around Iran.
“It’s kind of like when you spin more patrol cars on a freeway,” Commander Hawkins said. “They come out the exit and turn around, and keep doing these loops.”
On Tuesday, a US Coast Guard cutter, preceded by a drone ship the Navy operates in the Persian Gulf, crossed the Strait of Hormuzas well as the USS Paul Hamilton, the guided-missile destroyer, which also made the same trip on Friday.
In response to recent US action, Iran argued that its action against the two merchant vessels came after they both violated international maritime regulations, including the Advantage Sweet, which, according to Iranian officials, collided with an Iranian boat, injuring crew members. .
“The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the continued presence of foreign military forces in the waters of the Persian Gulf as a threat to the safety of navigation in this strategic waterway and believes that the countries of the region have the capacity to protect peace. and security. navigation without the presence of foreigners”, Nasser Kanani, spokesperson for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a press release.
In April, just before Iran seized the oil tanker Advantage Sweet en route to Houston, the United States intercepted a ship carrying Iranian oil that the government believed was in violation of sanctions, according to Ambrey, a security firm. maritime intelligence, while reported for the first time by the Financial Times. US authorities said the seizure was authorized under a court order.
Dating back to at least the mid-1980s – when there was a period dubbed the Tanker Wars due to a series of attacks by Iran on merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz – there has been escalating cycles in the region as ship intercepts by Iran have intensified or diminished.
There is always a risk that the fight between the United States and Iran will quickly turn into a conflict, but the two countries want to avoid such an outcome, say experts in the region, as do US Navy officials.
“It’s almost like the Kabuki theater that both countries have been engaged in for a very long time, even though the reality of serious armed conflict is almost unthinkable for both nations,” said John Ghazvinian, director of the Center for the Middle. East to University. of Pennsylvania and author of a history book relations between Iran and the United States.
But animosity between the two nations has grown in recent years. Two of the ship’s crew were killed in July 2021 when an Iranian-built drone, armed with explosives, attacked the merchant vessel named Mercer Street off Oman, an incident that US and European officials have reported. declared to have believed that Iran was behind.
The United States had previously used its Navy and Coast Guard ships in the region to search for weapons and drugs sent via the Persian Gulf, with Iran accused of helping to arm its allies in Yemen, in Syria and Lebanon, and more recently to send its attack drones to Russia, where they have been used to attack Ukraine.
Tensions have also escalated since the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal of the United States from a nuclear deal with Iran, which decided again to start enriching its uranium supply closer to the levels needed to make a nuclear weapon.
The Pentagon announced in April that it was extending the tour of the aircraft carrier George HW Bush to the eastern Mediterranean and accelerating the deployment of Air Force A-10 attack jets to a base in the Middle East. He also did the rare public announcement that the United States was sending a missile submarine to the Middle East.
Ghazvinian said the Pentagon’s recent actions could be an effort to reaffirm US relevance in the region, after China stepped in in March to help broker a diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some Gulf Arab officials said China’s growing presence suggested they could no longer count on the United States to guarantee their security.
Navy spokesman Commander Hawkins said the United States and Iran have had the right to patrol the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz for decades.
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.