US ships warn Iranian boats

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A US Navy warship fired a flare to signal an Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat to come straight at it during an encounter in the Strait of Hormuz, officials announced on Tuesday.

Monday’s incident involving the Guard and Navy comes as tensions remain high over stalled negotiations over Iran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers and Tehran enriches uranium closer than ever to levels of military quality under diminishing international scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the United Nations nuclear watchdog said Iran now plans to enrich uranium through a second set of advanced centrifuges at its underground Fordo facility amid the standoff.

The Cyclone-class patrol ship USS Sirocco and the Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport USNS Choctaw County came into a close encounter with three Iranian fast boats as they sailed through the Strait of Hormuz to enter the Persian Gulf, a indicated the Navy.

The navy said the high-speed Guard Boghammar approached within 50 yards of the Sirocco, increasing the risk of the ships colliding. The overall encounter lasted about an hour, the Navy said.

The Guard’s “actions failed to meet international standards of professional or safe maritime behavior, increasing the risk of miscalculation and collision,” the Navy said.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident in the strategic waterway – a fifth of all oil traded passes through the strait.

The Navy separately told The Associated Press it was the second so-called “dangerous and unprofessional” incident with Iran in recent months.

On March 4, three Guard ships had a tense encounter lasting more than two hours with U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships as they left the Persian Gulf through the strait, the Navy said. During that incident, the Guard’s catamaran, Shahid Nazeri, came within 25 yards of USCGC Robert Goldman, the Navy said.

“Both U.S. Coast Guards issued multiple bridge-to-bridge radio warnings and deployed flares,” the Navy said.

The Navy did not explain why it had not announced the previous incident, especially since a larger vessel had come even closer to a US warship. However, that was just when an agreement in Vienna between Iran and world powers on restoring the nuclear deal seemed possible, before the talks broke down.

Iran and world powers agreed to the nuclear deal in 2015, which saw Tehran drastically limit its uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled America out of the deal.

Talks in Vienna on reviving the deal have been on “pause” since March. Since the collapse of the deal, Iran has been using advanced centrifuges and a rapidly growing stockpile of enriched uranium.

On Tuesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors had verified that Iran was preparing to enrich uranium through a new cascade of 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its underground Fordo facility.

Already, Iran has a cascade of IR-6s operating in Fordo, about 55 miles southwest of Tehran. They enrich up to 20% purity.

The agency said Iran has not yet told it the level at which the second cascade will be rewarding. Iran has yet to publicly acknowledge the new stunt.

The 2015 nuclear deal prohibited any enrichment at Fordo. Protected by mountains, the installation is surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications.

Amid the tensions, Israel is believed to have carried out a series of attacks inside and outside Iran targeting the country.

On Tuesday, the state-run IRNA news agency quoted the prosecutor of Sistan and Balochistan province in southeastern Iran as alleging that three people arrested there in April on suspicion of working with the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad wanted to kill Iranian nuclear scientists.

It is unclear why the three would have been in Sistan and Balochistan, which has no nuclear sites.

Meanwhile, a Guards brigadier acknowledged that a deadly explosion in May at a weapons development facility in Parchin, east of Tehran, was caused by “industrial sabotage”.

An unnamed enemy launched the sabotage that killed an engineer and injured another worker amid the alleged Israeli assaults, said Mohammadreza Hassani Ahangar, the director of Imam Hossein University of the Guard, in comments quoted Monday evening by a subsidiary of state television.

Information for this article was provided by Amir Vahdat of The Associated Press.

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