United States, Iran in Tense Sea Incident; Tehran prepares new centrifuges | world news

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By JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A US Navy warship fired a warning flare to signal an Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat to come straight at it during a tense encounter in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, officials said 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.

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In a video released by the Bahrain-based Navy’s 5th Fleet, a high-speed Guard Boghammar is seen turning head-on towards the Sirocco. The Sirocco blows repeatedly on the Boghammar, which turns away as it approaches. The rocket blast can be heard, but not seen, as the Boghammar passes the Sirocco with the Iranian flag flying overhead.

The navy said the Boghammar was within 50 yards (45 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 (22 yards) of USCGC Robert Goldman, the Navy said.

“Both U.S. Coast Guards issued multiple deck-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, raising tensions across the Middle East and triggering a series of attacks and incidents.

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. Also earlier this month, Iran removed 27 surveillance cameras from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency. The head of the agency has warned that it could deal a “fatal blow” to the nuclear deal.

On Tuesday, the IAEA 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, near the Shia holy city of Qom, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran. They enrich up to 20% purity.

The IAEA 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 banned any enrichment at Fordo. Protected by mountains, the installation is surrounded by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It’s about the size of a football field, big enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead US officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.

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

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