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Gen. Joseph Votel answers a question during a press briefing at the Pentagon, August 30, 2016.
Gen. Joseph Votel answers a question during a press briefing at the Pentagon, August 30, 2016. (From a DOD video)

WASHINGTON -- An uptick in recent provocative behavior toward American military vessels by a faction of Iran’s naval forces could lead to an international incident in the Persian Gulf, Gen. Joseph Votel warned Tuesday.

The U.S. Central Command chief blamed a hard-line group of Iranian naval commanders for the vast majority of recent “unsafe and unprofessional” incidents in international waters.

In at least three separate incidents last week, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard fast boats harassed American warships, leading in one case to the USS Squall, a coastal patrol ship, firing three warning shots into the water.

About 90 percent of the interactions were carried out by vessels of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy, which is controlled by hard-line, anti-American clerics around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Votel said. The United States is less concerned about actions by the regular Iranian navy, which are typically normal.

“The big concern here is miscalculation,” Votel told reporters at the Pentagon. “… If they continue to test us, we are going to respond, and we are going to protect ourselves and our partners.”

In the incident with the Squall on Thursday, shots were only fired after other standard de-escalation methods -- including firing warning flares and attempting to make radio contact – failed, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said.

Votel lauded the American sailors’ actions. They remained calm and handled the Iranian incursions professionally, he said.

If such a confrontation, which can escalate in a matter of seconds, were to develop further, the American sailors would “prevail,” Votel said.

“I’m very, very confident of that, and we certainly don’t want that to come to pass, and that’s why I call on them to act in the professional manner that they espouse to act,” he said.

Votel has seen such Iranian actions up close. In July, the general was aboard the USS New Orleans, a San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock, cruising the Strait of Hormuz when Iranian boats approached quickly in an “aggressive manner.”

The Navy estimates about 10 percent of all its interactions with Iranian military vessels since the beginning of 2015 have been unprofessional.

In December, Iranian ships fired rockets near U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz and flew an unarmed drone over the aircraft carrier the USS Harry Truman. In January, the Iranian navy captured 10 U.S. crewmembers from two American patrol boats that strayed into Iranian waters and held them overnight.

The Iranians have typically ignored the Americans’ stated concerns about such actions, saying they have the right to investigate or confront vessels near their shoreline.

“Iran’s actions in the (Persian) Gulf are unlike anyone else’s,” Votel said Tuesday. “No one else does what they do – go out and drive fast boats towards military vessels. Nobody else does that in international waters.” Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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