A suspicious incident occurred Friday when two armed Iranian vessels approached the USS Essex with a top U.S. general on board.
Gen. Joseph Votel, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, was aboard the amphibious assault ship to observe flight operations when two Iranian fast-attack boats approached – one crossing in front of the Essex and the other traveling along its side, the Associated Press reported Friday.
“I really appreciate you arranging for the Iranians to be here,” Votel said, jokingly, to crew members aboard the Essex.
The Essex was on a routine patrol mission in the southern Persian Gulf. Votel was unsurprised by the Iranians’ presence, as they noticed the Essex’s presence and questioned it over radio traffic.
A pair of Iranian fast boats approached the USS Essex in the Persian Gulf on Friday as the top U.S. general in charge of operations throughout the Middle East visited sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship, Pentagon officials said https://t.co/Salr0EQEsd
— Stars and Stripes (@starsandstripes) October 26, 2018
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we have some Iranian interest today around perhaps one of the most significant ships we have in the Arabian gulf right now,” Votel said.
It’s unclear whether or not the Iranians knew Votel was aboard the Essex. However, attention could’ve been drawn from the two V-22 Osprey helicopters that transported him and his team, or the F-35 that demonstrated a flyover and its signature vertical landing during his observation.
“Today’s interaction with U.S. 5th Fleet forces and the IRGCN was characterized as safe and professional,” Vice Adm. Scott Stearney, the commander of 5th Fleet, said in a statement to the Marine Corps Times. “The U.S. Navy continues to operate wherever international law allows.”
Navy Capt. Jerry Olin, commodore of Amphibious Squadron One (of which the USS Essex is a part of), also reiterated that the Iranian boats acted in a usual manner. He added that the Iranian boats commonly come within close distances of U.S. ships to capture photographs, but are deterred by communication from the U.S. ships.
Hundreds of Iranian fast-attack boats are believed to be operating in the Persian Gulf. Although today’s incident was said to be safe, the boats have previously posed threats and harassed ships during transit through the Strait of Hormuz, a particularly controversial waterway that Iran claims ownership to.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal in May and later sanctions this year have contributed to increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Despite the tensions, there haven’t been any unsafe incidents between U.S. and Iranian vessels in 2018, which is a declining trend from 14 incidents in 2017, and 36 incidents in 2016, according to Stars and Stripes.