US and Iran in tense naval incident; Tehran prepares new centrifuges

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A US Navy warship fired a warning flare to direct an Iranian Revolutionary Guards speedboat towards it during a tense standoff in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, officials said on Tuesday.

Monday’s incident between the Guard and the Navy comes as tensions remain over the stalled negotiations over Iran’s fractured nuclear deal with world powers, and with Tehran enriching uranium ever closer to weapons-grade levels under diminishing international oversight.

Meanwhile, the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran is now planning to enrich uranium through a second set of advanced centrifuges at its underground Fordow facility amid the crisis.

The Navy said the Cyclone-class patrol ship USS Sirocco and Spearhead of the USNS Choctaw County fast-paced expeditionary transport class found themselves in close encounters with three Iranian speedboats as they came through the Strait of Hormuz to enter the Persian Gulf.

In a video released by the 5th Naval Fleet stationed in Bahrain, high speed ranger Bogmar is seen heading towards Sirocco. The Sirocco blows its horn over and over at Boomar, which turns away as it approaches. A flare shot can be heard, but not seen, as the bogmar passes Omar Sirocco with the Iranian flag fluttering over it.

The Navy said the Bogmar came within 50 yards (45 metres) of the tanker, increasing the risk of ships colliding with each other. The Navy said the all-out standoff lasted about an hour.

“The Revolutionary Guards’ actions did not meet international standards of professional or safe maritime conduct, increasing the risks of miscalculation and collision,” the Navy said.

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

The Navy separately told the AP that this represented its second “unsafe and unprofessional” incident with Iran in recent months.

On March 4, three Border Patrol ships had a tense standoff for more than two hours with US Navy and Coast Guard ships as they traveled out of the Persian Gulf through the strait, the Navy said. In that incident, the Lifeguard Martyr Nasiri’s raft came within 25 yards (22 meters) of USCGC Robert Goldman, the Navy said.

“The US Coast Guard sectors issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and deployed warning flares,” the Navy said.

The Navy did not explain why it had not announced the previous incident, especially since a larger ship approached an American warship. However, that was just as the deal in Vienna between Iran and world powers on restoring the nuclear deal seemed possible, before talks broke down.

Iran and world powers agreed in 2015 to the nuclear deal, which led to Tehran radically restricting uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the agreement, heightening tensions across the broader Middle East and triggering a series of attacks and incidents.

Talks in Vienna about reviving the deal had been “on hold” since March. Since the deal collapsed, Iran has been running advanced centrifuges and rapidly increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium. Also earlier this month, Iran removed 27 surveillance cameras belonging to the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. The head of the agency warned that it could deal a “fatal blow” to the nuclear deal.

On Tuesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors have verified that Iran is preparing to enrich uranium with a new series of 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at the Fordow underground facility. Iran already has one series of IR-6s operating at Fordo, near the Shiite holy city of Qom, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran. They enrich up to 20% purity.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had not yet informed it of the level at which the second cataract would be enriched. Iran has not publicly acknowledged the new sequence.

The 2015 nuclear deal banned all enrichment at Fordow. The facility, which is protected by the mountains, is surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It’s the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and stiff enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they publicly disclosed the site in 2009.

Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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