- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2017

A U.S. destroyer steaming through the contentious Strait of Hormuz fired multiple warning shots at advancing Iranian attack boats on Monday, breaking the lull in relative calm between Washington and Tehran in the contested regional waters two weeks before the Trump administration is installed.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis characterized the Iranian move against the USS Mahan, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, as an “unsafe and unprofessional action.”

President-elect Donald Trump has made strong statements indicating that the U.S. military will take a much harder line against Iranian interests in the region. Among his warnings, he has vowed to shatter President Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran and threatened to blow Iranian ships out of the water.

The military encounter happened a day after the death of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the fathers of the 1979 Islamic Revolution who also advocated for stronger ties with the West.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest characterized Iran’s behavior as unacceptable but said U.S. officials could not say why the Iranian boats took such an aggressive course.

“At this point, the United States does not know what the intentions of the Iranian vessels were, but the behavior is not acceptable given that the USS Mahan was operating in international waters,” Mr. Earnest said.

Capt. Davis also declined to speculate on the motivation behind the Iranian aggression. He only noted that the action was “somewhat out of character for what we have seen from Iran” regarding Tehran’s actions along its coastal waterways in recent months.

Private analysts speculated that it could be a pre-emptive message to the incoming U.S. administration, testing how ready Mr. Trump and his national security team would be to take on Tehran during their first days in office.

Four attack boats flagged under the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps approached the USS Mahan with weapons manned as the warship was transiting the strait, according to the Pentagon’s account.

The Mahan, along with the Wasp-class amphibious warship USS Makin Island and USNS Walter S. Diehl oil tanker, were steaming toward the Persian Gulf via the strait when the Iranian vessels engaged the group.

The Mahan’s crew issued “multiple radio and visual warnings” to the Iranian attack ships to no avail, Capt. Davis said. After the warnings went unheeded, the U.S. crew aboard the Mahan fired three warning shots from the ship’s heavy machine guns. After the warning shots, the Iranian vessels broke contact with the ship.

Revolutionary Guard naval forces have typically acted more aggressively against U.S. ships than the conventional Iranian navy, reflecting the more hard-line side of the service’s top officials, according to The Associated Press.

At one point in the advance, Iranian boats came within 900 yards of the Mahan before breaking off their pursuit, Capt. Davis said Monday.

The Strait of Hormuz had been calm compared with tensions between U.S. and Iranian forces in 2015 and early 2016.

In 2015 alone, Iranian warships engaged U.S. Navy vessels in the strait 23 times in unsafe and unprofessional provocations, Capt. Davis said. That number jumped to 35 the following year.

The last time a U.S. warship was forced to fire warning shots at Iranian vessels was in August in a similar incident involving the Navy patrol ship USS Squall. The ship’s crew were forced to fire warning shots on several advancing Iranian attack boats traversing the strait.

Since then, “we have had a significant number of these [incidents] before, [but] they have marginally stopped” until Monday’s incident, Capt. Davis said.

A year ago, the Revolutionary Guard navy seized two U.S. Navy riverboats that strayed into Iranian territorial waters. The 10 American crew members were held for 15 hours and interviewed by Iranian television. After a round of frantic backroom negotiating between Washington and Tehran, the Americans were released.

Tensions are seemingly running high in Tehran as Iran’s leaders await the Trump administration and prepare for presidential elections this spring, when hard-liners hope to oust the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

Iran was a favorite target for Mr. Trump on the campaign trail, when he repeatedly vowed to terminate the nuclear deal with Tehran. In September, Mr. Trump said if Iranian warships inappropriately engaged American vessels, he would order that they be “shot out of the water.”

Mr. Trump has also seeded his administration with a number of top security officials with histories of favoring a hard line on Tehran. The team is led by former Marine Gen. James Mattis, Mr. Trump’s pick to be secretary of defense.

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