A hugely significant incident occurred in the Persian Gulf on Friday, first reported by CNN and now confirmed through official U.S. Navy statements. An American warship — the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship Essex — was approached by two armed Iranian fast boats at a moment that commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, was on board.
CNN reported, based on official military sources, that at one point the pair of Iranian boats crossed within 300 yards in front of the Essex; however a Navy statement did not deem the incident as intentionally hostile in spite of video footage revealing what clearly appears to be harassing maneuvers around the much larger U.S. vessel.
U.S. Naval Forces Central Command told Marine Corps Times in a statement: “Today’s interaction with U.S. 5th Fleet forces and the IRGCN [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy] was characterized as safe and professional" — meaning the US didn't consider it to be an overt or intentional act of aggression. The statement continued: “The U.S. Navy continues to operate wherever international law allows.”
As CENTCOM Chief Votel was on board, we can imagine that if for a moment the Navy interpreted the approach as hostile the USS Essex would have blown the Iranian fast boats out of the water.
However, stunning video of the incident shows the armed Iranian military boats in an attempt to shadow and harass the Essex.
According to the initial CNN report:
There was no indication the Iranian boat crews were aware of Votel's presence. One of the officials said the two Iranian craft began shadowing the Essex and then started sailing in parallel with the US ship.
At one point, one of the Iranian boats crossed in front of the Essex about 300 yards away from the US ship.
Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has decreased intercepts and approached of US ships of late, according to analysts cited in international reports.
A Wall Street Journal reported noted there's been an average of more than two “unprofessional” encounters that since Jan. 2016, out of a total of almost 50 incidents over a two-year period. The last encounter deemed "unprofessional" by the US military was on August 14, 2017.
During the Friday encounter at least one US aircraft was launched as a show of force in the air, in response to what Gen. Votel characterized to NBC News as essentially an intelligence "collection operation" and general monitoring mission on the part of the IRGC vessels.
Notably, the Essex is hauling the new Marine Corps F-35Bs, which is a first for the U.S. Central Command area of operations. The F-35B is an advanced stealth fighter capable of taking off and landing vertically in its Marine-produced version.
Though the incident comes as the White House has reportedly put Iran in the cross-hairs and as Tehran attempts to survive crippling sanctions after President Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal, the fact remains that the encounter was in the Persian Gulf, which is Iran's own backyard, and not the Gulf of Mexico.
So it's good to see that saner minds are prevailing and there wasn't a direct military confrontation that escalated from this.