WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Navy ship fired warning shots after an Iranian fast-attack craft approached two U.S. ships in the northern Gulf on Wednesday, a U.S. Defense official said.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said three warning shots were fired from a .50 caliber gun after warning flares did not work.
The incident started with three Iranian vessels, but there was only one Iranian vessel around by the time the warning shots were fired, the official said.
The official added that at one point an Iranian vessel came within 200 yards (193 meters) of a U.S. ship.
The United States on Wednesday had reported another incident in which it said Iranian vessels harassed a U.S. warship near the Strait of Hormuz earlier this week.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday that two of the Iranian vessels came within 300 yards of the USS Nitze in an incident that was “unsafe and unprofessional.”
The vessels harassed the destroyer by “conducting a high speed intercept and closing within a short distance of Nitze, despite repeated warnings,” the official said.
IRGC, the Islamic Republic’s praetorian guard, is suspicious of U.S. military activity near Iran’s borders and appears to be sticking to a familiar posture in the Gulf that predates last year’s nuclear accord between Iran and six world powers, including the United States.
The United States and other countries are concerned about Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its ballistic missile program, and its backing for Shiite militias that have abused civilians in Iraq.
The U.S. defense official said that in Tuesday’s incident, the USS Nitze tried to communicate with the Iranian vessels 12 times, but received no response. It also fired 10 flares in the direction of two of the Iranian vessels.
“The Iranian high rate of closure… created a dangerous, harassing situation that could have led to further escalation, including additional defensive measures by Nitze,” the official said.
USS Nitze had to change course in order to distance itself from the Iranian vessels, the official said, adding that the incident could have led to a diplomatic protest, but the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran.
In January, 10 U.S. sailors aboard two patrol craft were detained by the IRGC when they inadvertently entered Iranian territorial waters. They were released the next day after being held for about 15 hours.
The Gulf separates Iran from its regional rival Saudi Arabia and a U.S. naval base in Bahrain.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Tim Ahmann, Paul Simao and Grant McCoo)