Trump blames Iran for tanker attacks, stoking fears of confrontation

Still image taken from a video appears to show two tankers at sea, one of which has a large plume of dark smoke in the Gulf of Oman. PRESS TV/IRIB/via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi and Makini Brice

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Iran on Friday for attacks on two oil tankers at the entrance to the Gulf despite Tehran’s denials, stoking fears of a confrontation in the vital oil shipping route.

Iran has dismissed earlier U.S. charges that it was behind Thursday’s attacks that crippled two tankers. It has previously suggested it could block the Strait of Hormuz, the main route out for Middle Eastern oil, if its own exports were halted.

Thursday’s blasts followed similar attacks a month earlier on four tankers, which Washington also blamed on Tehran.

They come at a time of escalating confrontation between the United States and Iran. Last month Washington sharply tightened sanctions against Tehran, which in response has threatened to step up its nuclear activity.

Asked how he planned to address Tehran and prevent any further incidents, Trump told Fox News: “We’re going to see.” He also said that any move to close the Strait of Hormuz would not last long.

Nevertheless, Trump, who last year pulled the United States out of an agreement between world powers and Tehran to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions, said that he was open to negotiations with Iran.

“We want to get them back to the table,” Trump said. “I’m ready when they are.” He added that he was in “no rush”.

Iran has repeatedly said it will not re-enter talks with the United States unless it reverses Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

The U.S. military released a video on Thursday it said showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were behind the blasts that struck the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman, at the mouth of the Gulf.

Iran said the video proved nothing and that it was being made into a scapegoat.

“These accusations are alarming,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

Iran has accused the United States and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of “warmongering” by making accusations against it.

Tehran and Washington have both said they have no interest in starting a war. But this has done little to assuage concerns that the two arch-foes could stumble into a conflict.

Oil prices surged on Thursday, reflecting the jitters, although they have since given up some of those gains.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday the world could not afford “a major confrontation in the Gulf region”.

China, the European Union and others have called for restraint from all sides. In a notable signal that close U.S. allies are wary of Washington’s position, Germany said the U.S. video was not enough to apportion blame for Thursday’s attack.

The U.S. military said black-and-white footage it filmed from a U.S. aircraft showed Iran’s Guards on one of their patrol boats drawing up to the Kokuka Courageous and removing an unexploded limpet mine from its hull.

Britain said it took the matter “extremely seriously” and, if Iran was involved, “it is a deeply unwise escalation”.

The Japanese-owned tanker, abandoned by its crew, was being towed to a port in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, after a Dutch firm said it had been appointed to salvage the ships.

The second tanker, the Front Altair, which was set ablaze by a blast, was still languishing at sea, although the fire that had charred the hull had been put out.

“ALARMING”

Last month Washington revoked waivers that had allowed some countries to continue importing Iranian oil, effectively ordering all countries to blacklist Iran or face sanctions themselves.

Iran’s crude exports fell to about 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in May from 2.5 million bpd in April 2018, starving Iran’s economy of its main source of revenues.

Iran says it is still abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal, but cannot do so indefinitely unless it receives some of the economic benefits that were promised. Last month it said it would boost enrichment of uranium, a move that could potentially lead to it building up a stockpile prohibited under the deal.

Washington has also blamed Iran or its proxies for attacks on May 12 that crippled four oil tankers in the same area, and has said Tehran was behind May 14 drone strikes on two Saudi oil-pumping stations. Tehran has denied all those charges.

There have been conflicting accounts of the cause of Thursday’s blasts. An initial report that Kokuka Courageous was struck by a torpedo was dismissed by a source familiar with the issue. The owner of the tanker, which carried methanol, later said it was hit by two “flying objects”.

A source has said a magnetic mine could have caused the explosion on Front Altair, which had a cargo of naphtha.

“UNWISE ESCALATION”

Iranian TV showed 23 crew in Iran believed to be from Front Altair on Friday, and said its experts would assess whether they could return to the ship. The crew from Kokuka Courageous were picked up and handed to a U.S. Navy ship on Thursday.

The Trump administration said in May it would send troops and other forces to the Middle East, citing Iranian threats, a move Tehran has called “psychological warfare”.

The administration argues that the nuclear deal, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, was too limited, and says re-imposing sanctions will force Tehran back to the table to make more concessions.

Most U.S. allies in Europe and Asia disagree and say pulling out of the deal was a mistake that will empower hardliners in Iran and hurt the pragmatic faction that promised Iranians economic benefits in return for opening up to the world.

Thursday’s attack took place while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan – a big buyer of Iranian oil until it was forced by the new U.S. sanctions to stop – was visiting Tehran on a peacemaking mission, bringing a message from Trump.

Iran dismissed Trump’s message, details of which were not made public. “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafez, Maher Chmaytelli and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Makini Brice, Susan Heavey, Phil Stewart and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Bart Meijer in Amsterdam; Victoria Klesty in Oslo; Writing by Edmund Blair and Peter Graff; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Gareth Jones)

Iran may attack Israel if U.S. standoff escalates: Israeli minister

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, Egypt January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli cabinet minister warned on Sunday of possible direct or proxy Iranian attacks on Israel should the stand-off between Tehran and Washington escalate.

The United States has increased economic and military pressure on Iran, with President Donald Trump on Thursday urging its leaders to talk to him about giving up their nuclear program and saying he could not rule out an armed confrontation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which supports Trump’s hard tack against its arch-foe, has largely been reticent about the spiraling tensions.

Parting with the silence, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said that, in the Gulf, “things are heating up”.

“If there’s some sort of conflagration between Iran and the United States, between Iran and its neighbors, I’m not ruling out that they will activate Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad from Gaza, or even that they will try to fire missiles from Iran at the State of Israel,” Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told Israel’s Ynet TV.

Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are Iranian-sponsored guerrilla groups on Israel’s borders, the former active in Syria as well as Lebanon and the latter in the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli military declined to comment when asked if it was making any preparations for possible threats linked to the Iran-U.S. standoff.

Israel has traded blows with Iranian forces in Syria, as well as with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian militants. But it has not fought an open war with Iran, a country on the other side of the Middle East.

(Writing by Dan Williams)

Iran naval drills underway amid tensions with U.S.

A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France and the European Union during the Iran nuclear talks at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. To match Analysis USA-ELECTION/IRAN

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States believes Iran has started carrying out naval exercises in the Gulf, apparently moving up the timing of annual drills amid heightened tensions with Washington, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said possibly more than 100 vessels were involved in the drills, including small boats. A second official expected the drill could be wrapped up this week.

Iran has been furious over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of an international nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Tehran. Senior Iranian officials have warned the country would not easily yield to a renewed U.S. campaign to strangle Iran’s vital oil exports.

The U.S. military’s Central Command on Wednesday confirmed it has seen an increase in Iranian naval activity, including in the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway for oil shipments that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have threatened to block.

“We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, the chief spokesman at Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Central Command did not update its guidance on Thursday.

A third official said the Iranian naval operations did not appear to be affecting commercial maritime activity.

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the drills appeared designed to send a message to Washington, which is intensifying its economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran but so far stopping short of using the U.S. military to more aggressively counter Iran and its proxies.

But Iran did not appear interested in drawing attention to them. Iranian authorities have yet to comment on them and several officials contacted by Reuters declined to comment.

Trump’s policies are already putting significant pressure on the Iranian economy, although U.S. intelligence suggests they may ultimately rally Iranians against the United States and strengthen Iran’s hardline rulers, officials say.

Iran’s currency plumbed new depths this week ahead of Aug. 7, when Washington is due to reimpose a first lot of sanctions following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Protests have broken out in Iran since the beginning of the year over high prices, water shortage, power cuts and alleged corruption.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people rallied in cities including Isfahan, Karaj, Shiraz and Ahvaz to protest high inflation caused in part by the weak rial.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Editing by James Dalgleish)

U.S. Gulf Coast braces for Tropical Storm Cindy

This graphic shows an approximate representation of coastal areas under a hurricane warning (red), hurricane watch (pink), tropical storm warning (blue) and tropical storm watch (yellow). The orange circle indicates the current position of the center of the tropical cyclone. The black line, when selected, and dots show the National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast track of the center at the times indicated. The dot indicating the forecast center location will be black if the cyclone is forecast to be tropical and will be white with a black outline if the cyclone is forecast to be extratropical. Courtesy of NOAA and the National Weather Service

By Liz Hampton

(Reuters) – Communities and oil refining and production facilities from Texas to Florida braced on Tuesday for potential disruptions as Tropical Storm Cindy strengthened over the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, threatening to bring flash floods across parts of the northern Gulf Coast.

Cindy was located about 230 miles (365 km) south of Morgan City, Louisiana late Tuesday with maximum sustained winds of 60 miles (95 km) per hour, the National Hurricane Center said.

The storm was moving toward the northwest near seven miles (11 km) per hour, and this motion was expected to continue through Wednesday.

On the forecast track, the center of Cindy will approach the coast of southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas late Wednesday, and move inland over southeastern Texas on Thursday, the Miami-based weather forecaster said.

A Tropical Storm Warning is in effect for San Luis Pass, Texas to the Alabama-Florida border, Metropolitan New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.

“The winds aren’t looking to get much stronger than they are now,” but some areas east of Houston and toward Florida could see as much as 12 inches of rain, said Stephen Strum, vice president of extended forecast services at Weather Decision Technologies in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“It’s moving fairly slow, so it’s going to produce rain for a long time,” he added.

Heavy rains and wind could disrupt oil supplies at the massive refining and production centers along the U.S. Gulf Coast, which could drive up prices for consumers. The Louisiana Offshore Oil Port (LOOP), the largest privately owned crude storage terminal in the United States, suspended vessel offloading operations ahead of the storm, but said it expected no interruptions to deliveries from its hub in Clovelly, Louisiana.

Royal Dutch Shell said it suspended some offshore well operations but production was so far unaffected. Anadarko Petroleum said it had evacuated non-essential staff from its Gulf of Mexico facilities.

Exxon Mobil Corp, Phillips 66, and Motiva Enterprises said the storm had not affected their refining operations.

Cindy was expected to produce six to nine inches (15-23 cm) of rain with isolated maximum amounts of 12 inches over southeastern Louisiana, southern Mississippi, southern Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle through Thursday, the NHC said.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency. Officials in Houston, New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf Coast said they were monitoring developments. Florida Governor Rick Scott warned residents in the northwest part of his state to stay alert for flooding and heavy rain.

The storm could cause a surge of one to three feet along the coast and possibly spawn tornados from southern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, the NHC said.

The Gulf of Mexico is home to about 17 percent of U.S. crude output and 5 percent of dry natural gas output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. More than 45 percent of the nation’s refining capacity is along the U.S. Gulf Coast, also home to 51 percent of total U.S. natural gas processing capability.

Crude oil prices for physical delivery along the U.S. Gulf Coast were relatively stable, but cash gasoline prices rose as traders expected heavy rains and possible flooding to hit refineries in the region.

Prompt U.S. Gulf Coast conventional gasoline firmed to trade as little as 2 cents per gallon under the RBOB futures contract, its strongest in four months.

WeatherBell Analytics LLC forecast 11 to 13 named tropical storms in the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season, according to a May outlook.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, and has an annual average of 9.6 named storms, 5.9 hurricanes and 2.3 intense hurricanes.

Southeast of the Gulf of Mexico, a second tropical storm, Bret has been downgraded into a tropical wave.

(Reporting by Koustav Samanta, Nallur Sethuraman, Swati Verma, Apeksha Nair and Arpan Varghese in Bengaluru, Catherine Ngai and Devika Krishna Kumar in New York and Liz Hampton in Houston; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Chris Reese and David Gregorio)

Gulf crisis seen widening split in Syria rebellion

FILE PHOTO: A rebel fighter from the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement reacts as they fire grad rockets from Idlib countryside, towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stationed at Jureen town in al-Ghab plain in the Hama countryside, Syria, April 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamad Bayoush/File Photo

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Confrontation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is creating unease among Syrian rebels who expect the crisis between two of their biggest state backers to deepen divisions in the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with Turkey and the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been major sponsors of the insurgency, arming an array of groups that have been fighting to topple the Iran-backed president. The Gulf support has however been far from harmonious, fuelling splits that have set back the revolt.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and transport ties with Qatar a week ago, accusing it of fomenting regional unrest, supporting terrorism and getting too close to Iran, all of which Doha denies.

It is the biggest rift among Gulf Arab states in years.

“God forbid if this crisis is not contained I predict … the situation in Syria will become tragic because the factions that are supported by (different) countries will be forced to take hostile positions towards each other,” said Mustafa Sejari of the Liwa al Mutasem rebel group in northern Syria.

“We urge our brothers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar not to burden the Syrian people more than they can bear.”

The Syrian rebellion can ill afford more internal conflict.

The opposition has been losing ground to Damascus ever since the Russian military deployed to Syria in support of Assad’s war effort in 2015. Assad now appears militarily unassailable, though rebels still have notable footholds near Damascus, in the northwest, and the southwest.

In the fractured map of the Syrian insurgency, Qatari aid has gone to groups that are often Islamist in ideology and seen as close to the Muslim Brotherhood – a movement that is anathema to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

Turkey, which has swung firmly behind Qatar in the Gulf crisis, is thought to have backed the same groups as Qatar in northern Syria, including the powerful conservative Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham.

Qatar is also widely believed to have ties to al Qaeda-linked jihadists of the group once known as the Nusra Front, which has rebranded since formally parting ways with al Qaeda and is now part of the Tahrir al-Sham Islamist alliance.

While Qatar has officially denied Nusra ties, it has mediated the release of hostages held by the group including Americans, Greek Orthodox nuns and members of the Lebanese security forces.

Saudi aid has meanwhile been seen as targeted more closely at groups backed through programs run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency – programs in which Qatar has also participated even as it has backed groups outside that channel.

The United Arab Emirates has also played an influential role in that program, together with staunch U.S. ally Jordan. These powers wield more influence in southern Syria than the north.

NORTH-SOUTH SPLIT

“It will increase the split between north and south, as the north is mainly funded by Qatar and Turkey, and the south is supported by Jordan and the (U.S.-led) coalition,” said an opposition source familiar with foreign support to the rebels.

A second opposition source, a senior rebel official, said the Gulf crisis “will certainly affect us, people are known to be with Saudi, or Qatar, or Turkey. The split is clear.”

Adding to rebel concerns, the crisis has also nudged Qatar closer to Iran, which has sent planes loaded with food to Doha. “Any rapprochement between Qatar and Iran, or any other state and Iran, is very concerning for us,” the rebel official said.

A senior Turkish official said it was very important that the Qatar crisis did not take on “further dimensions”.

“These developments will have certain effects on the developments in Syria, its effects will be seen on the field. The elements which Qatar supports may slightly weaken on the field,” the official said.

Opposition sources fear the Gulf crisis could spark new bouts of conflict, particularly in the Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus where the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam has been fighting the Qatari-backed Failaq al-Rahman intermittently for more than a year. That quarrel has helped government forces regain parts of the area.

The four Arab states that have turned against Qatar last week issued a list of dozens of people named as terrorists with links to Qatar, including prominent Islamist insurgent Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi national based in Syria known for mobilizing support for jihadist groups.

The U.S. Treasury last year blacklisted him for acting on behalf of and supporting the Nusra Front, saying he had raised millions of dollars for the group.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Turkey; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Peter Graff)

UAE turns screw on Qatar, threatens sympathizers with jail

A shop with a picture of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani is seen in Doha, Qatar, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Naseem Zeitoon

By Sylvia Westall and Tom Finn

DUBAI/DOHA (Reuters) – The United Arab Emirates tightened the squeeze on fellow Gulf state Qatar on Wednesday threatening anyone publishing expressions of sympathy toward it with up to 15 years in prison, and barring entry to Qataris.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash also told Reuters there would be more curbs if necessary and said Qatar needed to make iron-clad commitments to change what critics say is a policy on funding militants.

Qatar vehemently denies any such backing.

Efforts to defuse the regional crisis — triggered on Monday when the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others severed diplomatic ties with Qatar over alleged support for Islamist groups and Iran — showed no immediate signs of success.

U.S. President Donald Trump took sides in the rift on Tuesday, praising the actions against Qatar, but later spoke by phone with Saudi King Salman and stressed the need for Gulf unity.

His defense secretary, James Mattis, also spoke to his Qatari counterpart to express commitment to the Gulf region’s security. Qatar hosts 8,000 U.S. military personnel at al Udeid, the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East and a launchpad for U.S.-led strikes on the Islamic State militant group.

Kuwait’s emir has also been seeking to mediate, meeting Saudi’s king on Tuesday.

Qatar’s sudden isolation has led to the country holding talks with Turkey, Iran and others to secure food and water supplies, according to a Qatari official.

UAE-based newspaper Gulf News and pan-Arab channel Al-Arabiya reported the crackdown on expressions of sympathy with Qatar.

“Strict and firm action will be taken against anyone who shows sympathy or any form of bias towards Qatar, or against anyone who objects to the position of the United Arab Emirates, whether it be through the means of social media, or any type of written, visual or verbal form,” Gulf News quoted UAE Attorney-General Hamad Saif al-Shamsi as saying.

On top of a possible jail term, offenders could also be hit with a fine of at least 500,000 dirhams, the newspaper said, citing a statement to Arabic-language media.

Since the diplomatic row erupted, slogans against and in support of Qatar have dominated Twitter in Arabic, a platform used widely in the Arab world, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Newspapers and television channels in the region have also been engaged in a war of words over Qatar.

Allegations of Islamist sympathies and support have for years strained Doha’s relations with its Gulf Arab neighbors, who consider movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood a security threat.

The UAE’s state-owned Etihad Airways, meanwhile, said all travelers holding Qatari passports were currently prohibited from traveling to or transiting through the emirates on government instructions.

Foreigners residing in Qatar and in possession of a Qatari residence visa would also not be eligible for visa on arrival in the UAE, Etihad spokesman said in an email.

“This ruling applies to all airlines flying into the UAE,” the spokesman said in the statement.

Those breaking ties with Qatar are the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, the Maldives, Mauritania and Libya’s eastern-based government. Jordan has downgraded its diplomatic representation and revoked the license of Doha-based TV channel Al Jazeera.

SQUEEZE

Qataris were loading up on supplies in supermarkets, fearing shortages.

One official in Doha, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were enough grain supplies to last four weeks and that the government also had large strategic food reserves. But talks were underway to ensure supplies.

“We are in talks with Turkey and Iran and other countries,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

He said supplies would be brought in through Qatar Airways cargo flights.

Closing all transport links with Qatar, the three Gulf states who have moved against Doha gave Qatari visitors and residents two weeks to leave. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt banned Qatari planes from landing and forbade them from crossing their air space.

“This is a very diverse relationship that Qatar has with the UAE and with Saudi and Bahrain – families, business, travel, interests … It will be quite complex to disentangle, but we are intent on saying we cannot go back to the status quo ante,” Gargash, the UAE minister, told Reuters in an interview.

He said more steps against Qatar, including further curbs on business, remain on the table.

“We hope that cooler heads will prevail, that wiser heads will prevail and we will not get to that,” he said.

MARKETS

Qatar’s stock index was down 1.15 percent after plummeting 8.7 percent over the last two days.

“Tensions are still high and mediation efforts by fellow Gulf Cooperation Council state Kuwait have yet to lead to a concrete solution, so investors will likely remain on edge,” said one Dubai-based trader.

Oil prices dipped on renewed concerns about the efficacy of OPEC-led production cuts due to the tensions, and also over growing U.S. output.

Qatar has said it will not retaliate against the curbs.

“We are willing to sit and talk,” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told CNN late on Tuesday. He said his country was “protecting the world from potential terrorists”.

A Qatari official, however, said the rift was pushing Doha in the direction of leaving the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council, founded in 1981, “with deep regret”.

Bans on Doha’s fleet using regional ports and anchorages are threatening to halt some of its exports and disrupt those of liquefied natural gas.

Traders on global markets worried that Riyadh’s allies would refuse to accept LNG shipments from the Gulf state, the world’s largest liquefied natural gas exporter, and that Egypt might even bar tankers carrying Qatari cargoes from using the Suez Canal as they head to Europe and beyond.

(Reporting by Sylvia Westall, Hadeel Al Sayegh, Celine Aswad, William MacLean; Writing by Jeremy Gaunt; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Iran vessels make ‘high speed intercept’ of U.S. ship

Footage taken aboard the USS Nitze of Islamic Revolutionary Guard vessels

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Four of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) vessels “harassed” a U.S. warship on Tuesday near the Strait of Hormuz, a U.S. defense official said, amid Washington’s concerns about Iran’s posture in the Gulf and in the Syrian civil war.

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday that two of the Iranian vessels came within 300 yards of the USS Nitze in an incident that was “unsafe and unprofessional.”

The vessels harassed the destroyer by “conducting a high speed intercept and closing within a short distance of Nitze, despite repeated warnings,” the official said.

IRGC, the Islamic Republic’s praetorian guard, is suspicious of U.S. military activity near Iran’s borders and appears to be sticking to a familiar posture in the Gulf that predates last year’s nuclear accord between Iran and six world powers, including the United States.

The United States and other countries are concerned about Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its ballistic missile program, and its backing for Shiite militias that have abused civilians in Iraq.

The U.S. defense official said that in Tuesday’s incident the USS Nitze tried to communicate with the Iranian vessels 12 times, but received no response. It also fired 10 flares in the direction of two of the Iranian vessels.

“The Iranian high rate of closure… created a dangerous, harassing situation that could have led to further escalation, including additional defensive measures by Nitze,” the official said.

USS Nitze had to change course in order to distance itself from the Iranian vessels, the official said, adding that the incident could have led to a diplomatic protest, but the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran.

It remains to be seen whether these actions were carried out by rogue Revolutionary Guard commanders or sanctioned by senior officials in Tehran, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“For four decades the Revolutionary Guard have been told that America is the greatest threat to the Islamic Revolution,” said Sadjadpour. “This institutional culture hasn’t changed after the nuclear deal,” he added.

In January, 10 U.S. sailors aboard two patrol craft were detained by the IRGC when they inadvertently entered Iranian territorial waters. They were released the next day after being held for about 15 hours.

The Gulf separates Iran from its regional rival Saudi Arabia and a U.S. naval base in Bahrain.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by Warren Strobel; Editing by Grant McCool and Andrew Hay)