US and UK navies acted when a merchant ship was being harassed by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz, in a sign of a more forceful policy in the Persian Gulf.
The vessel sent a distress call on June 4 while transiting the straits, a relatively narrow waterway controlled in the north by Iran but considered international waters for commercial and naval traffic.
Iran has hundreds of fast attack boats that for years not only have harassed civilian vessels but, on many occasions, have come dangerously close to US and other warships in a show of force.
“The internationally flagged merchant vessel made a radio distress call at 4:56 p.m. local time while transiting the narrow strait. The civilian crew reported three fast-attack craft with armed personnel approached and followed the merchant vessel at close distance. The fast-attack craft were assessed to be from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy,” a US navy statement said.
US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul and UK Royal Navy frigate HMS Lancaster both received the distress call, and Lancaster launched a helicopter to provide surveillance. US 5th Fleet also directed a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to monitor the scene, the Navy said.
“The situation deescalated approximately an hour later when the merchant vessel confirmed the fast-attack craft departed the scene. The merchant ship continued transiting the Strait of Hormuz without further incident.”
It must be noted, however, that allied navies did not confront the Iranian forces, but simply "monitored" the situation. If fighter jets or attack helicopters had been dispatched, it would have sent a more forceful signal to the IRGC.
The incident followed Iran’s seizure of two commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf waters in May and an announcement by the US to send more naval forces to the region.
“[The] United States will not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardize freedom of navigation through the Middle East waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz,” National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told reporters on May 12, adding that there is “simply no justification” for Iranian actions to interfere, harass or attack merchant ships.
The Sunday incident also followed an announcement by the United Arab Emirates last week that it has pulled out of a US-led maritime coalition to provide security, which was later denied by the United States. However, Iran was quick to claim victory and announce that a new naval coalition is being formed with regional powers. The US also denied that claim, saying the Iranian statement “defies reason” as the Islamic Republic itself is the greatest threat to maritime security.
Sunday’s action, although not a direct naval confrontation, will reassure littoral countries that have relied on the West, and primarily on the United States, for security in the Persian Gulf.
The region contains some of the world's most important shipping routes where, in 2019, suspected Iranian attacks began against oil tankers amid tensions with the United States as the Trump administration imposed oil export sanctions on Tehran.
But Iran had long been harassing even US Navy vessels with its fast attack boat. The Obama, Trump and Biden administrations chose not to retaliate against Iranian naval provocations over the years or show a convincing military deterrent response.
As Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab power in the region shows signs of adopting a new policy of détente with Iran and close ties with China, the Biden administration feels it has to show that US security guarantees are important for the oil-rich Arab allies.
“US 5th Fleet remains vigilant and is bolstering defense around the key strait with partners to enhance regional maritime security and stability,” the US Navy said in its statement about the Sunday incident.