In a vivid illustration of the tensions between the US and Iran, a US Navy warship fired warning shots at Iranian boats that were racing toward it near the Strait of Hormuz, US Department of Defense officials said on Monday.
The episode occurred on Sunday when four Iranian fast boats came within 823km of the USS Mahan, a guided missile destroyer that was escorting an amphibious warship with 1,000 US Marines on board and a US Navy oiler.
When the Iranian boats did not respond to a radio call and flares signaling them to stop, the US destroyer fired three warning shots with a .50 caliber machine gun. A navy helicopter also dropped smoke grenades. There was no damage to the Iranian vessels and they did not return fire.
It was the first time the US Navy had fired warning shots at an Iranian boat since Aug. 24, last year.
Though the boats’ approaches are essentially a form of harassment, they point to the risk of military confrontation in a region that is bristling with Western, Arab and Iranian forces.
US president-elect Donald Trump vowed during the presidential campaign to take military action against Iranian ships that approached US vessels in a threatening manner.
“With Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water,” Trump said at a rally in September last year.
There were 35 close encounters between US and Iranian vessels last year, most of which occurred during the first half of the year, and 23 encounters in 2015.
The most serious episode took place in January last year, when Iran detained and ultimately freed 10 sailors who had unintentionally entered its territorial waters while cruising from Kuwait to Bahrain.
On Sunday, Iranian boats approached the US ships six times before they got so close the Mahan fired warning shots.
There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials, but the Iranian military has signaled its intention to be active in the area and is planning a war game in the region this month.