Iranian military boats have quietly ended years of harassment of U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf, and it looks like another welcome sign of a new cop on the beat, The New York Post reports.
For years, armed Iranian “fast boats” would charge at U.S. ships in a dangerous game of chicken, rising to a level the Navy deemed “unsafe or unprofessional” at least twice a month. It was a clear signal of disrespect and a test of what Washington would put up with.
Officially, the Navy doesn’t know why. U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel says, “I hope it’s because we have messaged our readiness . . . and that it isn’t tolerable or how professional militaries operate.” But Tehran surely takes that “isn’t tolerable” message a lot more seriously now that President Barack Obama is out of office.
In some of the more serious incidents, Iranian crews have directed spotlights at ship and aircraft crews, potentially blinding pilots as they conduct operations, according to U.S. military officials. In one case, an Iranian boat pointed a weapon at an American helicopter flying off a Navy vessel, officials said. In the most serious incidents, U.S. vessels have fired warning shots in return.
Tensions reached a high point in January 2016 after two small U.S. Navy boats drifted into Iranian waters and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members briefly held the crew captive. U.S. officials accused Iran in that instance of violating international law.
But in response to a query, U.S. military officials said there have been no such incidents since August 2017. The apparent shift in Iranian behavior comes as an international nuclear agreement with Tehran is teetering as President Donald Trump threatens to end U.S. sanctions relief provided to Tehran under the deal, negotiated under President Barack Obama.
General Votel said that the abatement in the Persian Gulf didn’t alone signal a broader “strategic shift” by Iran, noting activities such as Iran’s support of Houthi rebels in Yemen. “I think we have to look at Iran in totality,” General Votel said.
Military officials noted that while Iranian harassment in the Gulf had declined, the country’s forces weren’t idle. Iran has been observed by the U.S. conducting activities that approach but stop short of what would be considered harassment, a U.S. military official explained. Officials at U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, in Manama, Bahrain, were loath to guess the reasons behind it.
Obama, after all, had shown he wouldn’t enforce his own red lines, infamously blinking rather than live up to his own vow that use of chemical weapons by Syria’s bloody Bashar al-Assad would be a “game-changer.” Plus, he’d proven unwilling to confront Iran over anything, staying silent during the critical early days of the 2009 Green Movement protests and then later giving up the store in negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal.
Not to mention letting Tehran get away with taking two Navy crews hostage in 2016, and ignoring countless other Iranian provocations after striking the nuke deal. To be fair, Iran might have backed off in the Gulf if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016.
But it’s facing President Trump instead: a leader who has enforced Obama’s red line in Syria and overseen the ruination of ISIS, and who’s anything but wedded to preserving the nuclear agreement at all costs. The fast-growing U.S. economy is far from the only fruit of change in Washington.