A pair of dangerously close encounters between the Iranian and U.S. navies in the Persian Gulf this week have raised fresh questions about Tehran’s intentions, a year after Obama administration officials hoped the much-touted nuclear deal would moderate the behavior of the Islamic republic and its military.
Iran’s military is going to “warn” and “confront” any foreign ships entering its territorial waters, the nation’s top defense official said Thursday, after four Iranian fast-attack craft buzzed the guided-missile destroyer USS Nitze in the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday, and the USS Squall, a coastal patrol ship, fired three warning shots a day later to deter boats under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard at the northern end of the heavily trafficked waterway.
Pentagon officials called the Iranian craft’s behavior “unsafe and unprofessional,” but the challenges on the high seas point to a bigger diplomatic headache over what Mr. Obama sees as a crowning achievement of his presidency.
U.S. officials say Iran has abided by its commitments on the nuclear program, but there have been few signs of change in Iranian behavior in other arenas, including tensions in the Persian Gulf, clashes with U.S. allies in the region and the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.
Congressional Republicans and critical private analysts have been angry about the Iranian behavior since late last year, when the Islamic republic conducted two tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in defiance of U.N. sanctions and then staged a live-fire exercise dangerously close to a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf.
The situation worsened in January, when Iran briefly detained 10 U.S. Navy sailors whose boats had drifted mistakenly into Iranian waters in the Gulf. The incident was resolved but cast a shadow over Mr. Obama’s scheduled State of the Union address.
Some Republicans said Iran was taunting the Obama administration after the nuclear deal last year in which world powers dramatically eased economic sanctions on Tehran in exchange for limiting its long-disputed nuclear programs.
Although administration officials hoped the deal might lead to a less-confrontational posture from Iran, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said Iran continues to pursue policies that are “destabilizing the region.”
“Iran is on a roll, and the perception is that the administration is getting rolled at this moment,” Mr. Royce said in January. “We need to see more backbone, not backing down.”
Revelations this month of how the Obama administration worked out a $1.7 billion settlement of a failed Iranian missile sale in January at virtually the same time as the release of five American prisoners held in Iran has only fueled criticism that Mr. Obama is overlooking continued misbehavior by Tehran to preserve the nuclear deal.
“We now know the extraordinary lengths to which the Obama administration went to ensure this payment happened, including lifting sanctions on Iranian Air just one day before the transfer,” Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said last week.
“Again and again, this administration gets caught dodging and weaving to avoid the truth,” he said.
Adm. John Richardson, U.S. chief of naval operations, said Wednesday that the incident involving the USS Nitze underscored continued naval tensions with Tehran.
Iran has lodged its own complaints since the nuclear deal was reached. It has accused the U.S. of delaying the lifting of economic sanctions and of discouraging other nations from investing in Iran.
Iranian leaders say the economic payoff from the deal has been disappointing.
Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, Iran’s defense minister, told the semi-official Tasnim news agency that patrols designed to prevent intrusions into Iran’s territorial waters would continue.
Without referring directly to the latest incidents, Gen. Dehghan said, “If any foreign vessel enters our waters, we warn them, and if it’s an invasion, we confront.”
Testing U.S. resolve
But critics say it is increasingly clear that the Iranian military is intent on testing the Obama administration’s resolve.
One incident was in early July, when five Iranian boats suddenly maneuvered dangerously close to an amphibious U.S. Navy ship in the strait.
Gen. Joe Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, told The Wall Street Journal that such incidents could lead to grave miscalculations because U.S. sailors don’t always have time to figure out how to respond. The paper cited data indicating that U.S. Navy ships reported about 300 incidents with Iranian vessels last year.
While the vast majority of the incidents were minor, Navy officials were quoted as saying about 10 percent were of greater concern, including Iranian craft speeding toward, training weapons on or crossing the bows of U.S. ships.
A video posted online by the U.S. Naval Institute showed four Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy patrol boats speeding and weaving toward the American destroyers in broad daylight Tuesday, as the USS Nitze fired warning flares, sounded its whistles and attempted, unsuccessfully, to communicate with the Iranians.
The Nitze changed its course multiple times to avoid colliding with the Iranian boats. The maneuvers had to be carried out quickly close to several offshore oil rigs.
Despite the strong words from U.S. military officials, the Obama administration appeared loath to dwell on the incidents. Secretary of State John F. Kerry made no mention of the confrontations Thursday during a high-level diplomatic visit to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the Middle East.
Mr. Kerry did, however, criticize the Iranians for engaging in aggressive actions on other fronts, particularly in Yemen, where Tehran-backed rebels overthrew a Saudi-backed government two years ago.
U.N.-sponsored negotiations to end 18 months of fighting in the impoverished country on Saudi Arabia’s southern border collapsed this month, and the dominant Iran-backed Houthi rebel movement has been firing mortars at targets inside Saudi territory.
Mr. Kerry lamented Iran’s role in the situation at a press conference with his Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, asserting that the “threat additionally posed by the shipment of missiles and other sophisticated weapons into Yemen from Iran extends well beyond Yemen.”
“It is not a threat just to Saudi Arabia; it is a threat to the region, it is a threat to the United States, and it cannot continue,” he said.
It was not the first time the secretary of state has called out the Iranians for meddling in the affairs of other Middle Eastern nations. For years, Mr. Kerry and other Obama administration officials have publicly criticized Iran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad with weapons and fighters from the Lebanon-based Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah.
Republican critics say the administration harsh statements aren’t enough, particularly when it comes to deterring Iran from other confrontational activities, such as the wave of ballistic missile tests the Islamic republic carried out in March.
After the tests, 12 Senate Republicans introduced a bill calling on the administration to level fresh sanctions on Iran as punishment.
“Tough words alone will not deter the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism from continuing to develop its ballistic missile program,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, said at the time.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.