- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 30, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - The top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East sharply criticized Iran on Tuesday for recent high-speed maneuvers by Iranian patrol boats in the Persian Gulf that in one case prompted a U.S. Navy ship to fire warning shots.

Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that these episodes involving the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps naval forces are worrying because they risk triggering a dangerous escalation.

“What we see with the Iranians is not particularly responsible,” Votel said. “It is provocative, in some cases; it’s unsafe. And it can lead to situations where we may not be able to de-escalate in a time before something happens.”

The U.S. maintains a near-continuous naval presence in the Gulf and thus has frequent, mostly benign, encounters with Iranian vessels.

Last Wednesday, the USS Squall, a coastal patrol ship, fired three warning shots on an Iranian boat that was approaching, head-on, another coastal patrol ship - the USS Tempest. U.S. officials said the Iranian boat came within 200 yards of the Tempest and ignored several bridge-to-bridge radio calls and warning flares.

It was one of three encounters that U.S. ships had with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps boats in the Gulf that day. One day earlier, four Iranian boats had approached the USS Nitze, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, at high speed in the Strait of Hormuz. The boats veered off after the Nitze fired flares.

Votel praised the U.S. sailors’ handling of the incidents. He said the problem seems to lie not with the regular Iranian navy but with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps naval forces, which have been accused by the U.S. numerous times of provocative behavior in the Gulf.

“So this is, in my view, not about the Iranian people,” Votel said. “It’s about the Iranian regime and their desire to continue to do these types of things that stoke instability or attempt to stoke instability in the region.”

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