Shots fired in Persian Gulf; Iran warns encroaching U.S. ships will be ‘severely punished’

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( – Iran’s defense minister vowed Thursday that any U.S. or other warships that enter Iranian waters would be “severely punished,” as the Pentagon confirmed that a U.S. patrol vessel had fired warning shots after being approached by an Iranian attack boat in an “unsafe” manner.

“It is a natural and routine program of the border patrol to do surveillance in the southern waters and to collect intelligence on foreign ships’ operations,” the Mehr news agency quoted Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan as telling reporters in Isfahan.

Whether American or otherwise, he said, “any destroyer of any sort would be severely punished if they are found to encroach our waters in Persian Gulf.”

In the latest in a series of incidents in the area, an Iranian vessel approached two U.S. Navy ships Thursday, prompting crew on the USS Squall – a Cyclone-class patrol coastal ship forward deployed to the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain – to fire three warning shots.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said he believed the shots were fired “into the water.”

“The Iranian craft, as I understand it, left at that point.”

The U.S. vessels had initially taken other steps aimed at de-escalating the situation, including the firing of flares.

“They felt the need to take an additional step to try and de-escalate the situation, and that was, again, to fire the warning shots,” Cook said.

“The onus here is on the Iranians to conduct themselves in a safe and professional manner, like navies all over the world do.”

In an earlier incident Thursday, four Iranian vessels approached the destroyerUSS Nitze in the Strait of Hormuz in what the Pentagon described as “an unsafe and unprofessional manner.”

“Our ships were in international waters,” said Cook. “Our sailors were conducting themselves professionally as they are trained to do. And we did not see the same from the Iranian boats on the other side.”

The Strait of Hormuz lies between Iran and Oman, less than 30 miles wide at its narrowest point. It is one of the world’s most crucial waterways, a transit channel for about one-fifth of the world’s crude oil, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

The Iranian regime has periodically threatened to close the chokepoint, and challenges the U.S. Navy’s right to patrol or hold military exercises there.

Cook said the Pentagon hopes Iranian harassment of U.S. Navy ships in the area does not continue, “because it serves no purpose other than to raise tensions in an important part of the world.”

He said U.S. Navy personnel “will continue to take the steps that they need to, to protect themselves, their ships and our interests in the region.”

“Our ships are operating as they have for years in that part of the world, in international waters, and will continue to do so,” Cook said.

Last January the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy detained 10 U.S. Navy sailors in the northern Persian Gulf for about 14 hours, after U.S. Central Command said their two small patrol boats had inadvertently entered Iran’s territorial waters.

They were allowed to leave after Secretary of State John Kerry contacted his Iranian counterpart and nuclear talks interlocutor, Javad Zarif.

Kerry thanked Iran for ensuring a swift resolution of the incident, but the Iranians did not pass up the opportunity to use it for propaganda purposes.

State media repeatedly showed images of the sailors’ detention at gunpoint, along with video clips showing a sailor apologizing for entering Iranian waters, another one apparently in tears, and a female crew member with her head covered by a scarf.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the incident an “act of God” andawarded medals to the IRGC Navy sailors involved.

At the State Department Thursday, spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said she had no information to share on whether Kerry or other officials have raised with the Iranians the latest incidents in the Gulf.

“I just don’t have any calls or engagements to read out as of right now,” she said in response to questions. “I have nothing to announce.”

— Written by Patrick Goodenough