ABOARD THE USS PAUL HAMILTON IN THE STRAIT OF HORMUZ -- The Mideast-based commanders of the U.S., British and French navies transited the Strait of Hormuz on Friday aboard an American warship, a sign of their unified approach to keep the crucial waterway open after Iran seized two oil tankers.
Tensions in the Persian Gulf have been volatile since Iran's nuclear deal with world powers collapsed following the U.S.' unilateral withdrawal five years ago. The incredibly rare, joint trip by the three navy chiefs aboard the USS Paul Hamilton, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, saw three fast boats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard approach the vessel at one point.
Guardsmen stood by uncovered machine guns on their decks, while sailors aboard the Paul Hamilton similarly stood by loaded machine guns as others shot photographs and video of the vessels. An Associated Press journalist also accompanied the allied naval commanders.
While the Guard kept its distance from both the Paul Hamilton and the passing British frigate HMS Lancaster, their presence showed just how tense passage for vessels can be in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of global oil supplies passes.
"Iran has seized or attacked 15 ships in the last two years, eight seizures and seven attacks," Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, who oversees the U.S. Navy's Mideast-based 5th Fleet, told the AP. "So the shipping industry is mindful of what the security posture looks like in the region. We have the ability to positively impact that influence, and that's what we're doing now."
Cooper said Iran's Guard ships Friday came within 1,000 yards of the Paul Hamilton, which is based out of San Diego.
The U.S. has viewed securing the Middle East's waterways, particularly the Strait of Hormuz, as key since then-President Jimmy Carter's 1980 speech vowing to use military force to protect American interests in the wider Persian Gulf. While focused then on the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter Doctrine's vow to allow "the free movement of Middle East oil" now pits the U.S. against Iran.
Last week, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told journalists that America planned to make "a series of moves to bolster our defensive posture" in the Persian Gulf, while criticizing Iran's recent seizures of tankers. Cooper said the joint trip on the Paul Hamilton represented part of that push, with the aim of having more coalition ships passing through the strait on a regular basis.
"The volume of commerce that flows through the Strait of Hormuz -- it is critical to the world's economy," he said.
For its part, Iran long has bristled at the American presence in the region. After Kirby's remarks, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani issued a lengthy statement accusing the U.S. of "creating and intensifying instability and insecurity in the Persian Gulf region for decades with its interventionist and destructive policies."
However, Kanaani also specifically mentioned the U.S. "seizing and confiscating some Iranian oil cargoes in international waters." The suspected American seizure of the Suez Rajan, a tanker linked to a U.S. private equity firm believed to have been carrying sanctioned Iranian crude oil off Singapore, likely sparked Tehran to recently take the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Advantage Sweet. That ship carried Kuwaiti crude oil for energy firm Chevron Corp. of San Ramon, California.
There was no immediate reaction in Iranian state media nor from the Guard about the Paul Hamilton's trip from the Persian Gulf out through the strait to the Gulf of Oman. However, it was unlikely the Iranians immediately knew that the American, British and French commanders had been aboard the vessel, though at least one Guard member aboard the fast boats was studying the Paul Hamilton with a pair of binoculars.
Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the trip.
On the trip through the Strait of Hormuz, at least one Iranian drone watched the Paul Hamilton. Meanwhile, a U.S. Navy Boeing P-8 Poseidon also was overhead. U.S. forces also routinely fly drones in the region as well, while a Navy task force has put some drones out to sea as well.