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ARLINGTON, Va. — The encounter between U.S. and Iranian vessels in the Strait of Hormuz earlier this week offered worrying proof that control of area waters has shifted from the Iranian navy to the much more aggressive Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Pentagon’s top uniformed leader said Friday.

“It’s clearly, strategically, where the Iranian military has gone,” Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters.

“There’s been a projection” by U.S. military analysts that the Revolutionary Guard Corps would take operational command and control of the Gulf from Iran’s navy, Mullen said.

“That was a big concern to me, because of the history and the background” of the Revolutionary Guard, Mullen said.

The Revolutionary Guards maritime forces are known to operate in a far more hostile manner than the regular Iranian navy, including their hostage-taking of 15 British forces last year in international waters.

Moreover, Mullen said, “We have had this [concern with] small, fast boats for years.”

Navy officers have worried that Iranian military officers, knowing they can’t compete with the U.S. Navy on a ship-to-ship basis, may have decided to confront American warships by swarming them with many small craft.

This week’s incident may have been a test of that strategy, Mullen said.

“This fit that mold, as far as I was concerned,” Mullen said. “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind. There were five boats, it was pretty dramatic.”

Mullen cautioned against what he called “Monday morning quarterbacking” — analysts have said that the Navy’s response was too timid.

“We’re certainly not anxious to get into combat with them,” he said of the Iranian Guard.

“But please do not misread restraint for lack of resolve,” Mullen said. “Those ships’ [commanding officers] will protect themselves.”

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