Boats from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps maneuvered dangerously close to a U.S. military vessel in the Strait of Hormuz on Monday, part of a pattern that the top American general in the region—who was on the ship at the time—said risked grave miscalculation.
“What concerns me is our people don’t always have a lot of time to deal with those interactions,” said Gen. Joe Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, as he stood on the bridge of the amphibious ship later in the day. “It’s measured in minutes to really have the opportunity to make the right decision.”
The five Iranian boats included four small patrol craft and a larger boat called a Houdong fast-attack craft. At least one of the patrol boats was equipped with a .50 caliber machine gun and what is known as a multiple rail rocket launcher. They came within several hundred yards of the American ship.
The series of encounters on Monday took place as the New Orleans sailed in international waters through the strait. Gen. Votel, on a swing through the Middle East this week, voiced concern about how quickly such an encounter could turn lethal for the ship, which was carrying about 700 Marines.
The encounters might have been considered more dramatic if they weren’t so common. American Navy ships reported about 300 incidents with Iranian vessels during 2015, according to data provided by the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Most of those “interactions,” as the Navy calls them, are considered safe or don’t rise to the level of harassment, according to Navy officials.
Navy officials essentially grade Iranian naval behavior on a curve. They said that the way the Iranians behave typically, even when they don’t actually harass American warships, is still not the way most professional navies behave at sea.
The IRGC’s routine actions in the region force American warships to have to determine just what their intent is, said one officer here.
“It’s very common for them to come up to within 300, 500 yards of us, and then they’ll turn, or parallel us and stop,” said Lt. Forrest Griggs, the New Orleans’s operations officer. “We try not to become accustomed to that because we don’t want to become complacent.”
Navy officials maintain they always navigate through the international waters of the strait—through which a third of all seaborne oil and other energy products are shipped—and Gen. Votel said the U.S. isn’t trying to provoke Iran with such operations.