Seven Iranian boats shadowed and harassed a U.S. Navy vessel Sunday in the latest of what has been a series of tense maritime incidents between the two countries, Defense Department officials confirmed Tuesday.
Officials said the Cyclone-class coastal patrol ship USS Firebolt was operating in the central Arabian Gulf, in the vicinity of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, when seven fast attack craft from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy approached.
Three of the Iranian boats maneuvered near the 174-foot Navy vessel, following behind the ship at a range of about 500 yards and shadowing its course, a defense official said.
The three boats followed the Firebolt for about eight minutes before turning off and departing the region, leaving four Iranian attack craft near the American ship.
One of these moved toward the Firebolt and came to a stop within 100 yards of the ship, forcing the crew to maneuver in order to narrowly avoid collision.
While the Iranian vessels were equipped with crew-served weapons, they remained unmanned and untrained during the interaction between the two ships, an official said.
The Firebolt crew attempted to communicate with the Iranian boats three times to learn their intentions, but got no response.
"U.S. Naval Forces Central Command assessed the interaction as unsafe and unprofessional due to lack of communications and the close range harassing maneuvering of the [attack craft], which increased the likelihood of a collision," a defense official said in a statement.
"The Iranians' unsafe maneuvers near a United States ship operating in accordance with international law while transiting in international waters created a dangerous, harassing situation that could have led to further escalation including additional defensive measures by Firebolt," the official said.
While the official did not describe what additional defensive measures might have been employed, another Cyclone-class patrol ship, the USS Squall, was forced to fire warning shots on Aug. 25 when it was harassed by three Iranian vessels, one of which buzzed within 200 feet of the ship. A day before, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Nitze had fired 10 warning flares and blown its whistle to warn off four Iranian boats approaching the ship at unsafe speeds.
In July, five Iranian vessels maneuvered dangerously close to the amphibious transport dock New Orleans in the Strait of Hormuz while Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, was aboard.
While encounters with Iranian ships are nothing new for the Navy, it appears the number of dangerous and harassing incidents may be escalating.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Navy ships had had 300 "interactions" with Iranian vessels last year, according to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, though most were not deemed unsafe or harassment.