Iranian patrol boats and aircraft have shadowed a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group as it transited the Strait of Hormuz, as Israel said that Iran wants to “revive the Persian Empire” and once again become a major superpower with a nuclear bomb.
Tuesday’s passage ended a Gulf mission that displayed Western naval power amid heightened tensions with Tehran, which has threatened to choke off vital oil shipping lanes.
But officers onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln said there were no incidents with Iranian forces and described the surveillance as routine measures by Tehran near the strategic strait, which is jointly controlled by Iran and Oman.
Although U.S. warships have passed through the strait for decades, the trip comes during an escalating showdown between Iran and the West over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The last time an American carrier left the Gulf -- the USS John C. Stennis in late December – Iran’s army chief warned the U.S. it should never return.
The Lincoln was the centerpiece of a flotilla that entered the Gulf last month along with British and French warships in a display of Western unity against Iranian threats. There was no immediate comment by Iran about the Lincoln’s departure, according to The Associated Press.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has said it plans its own naval exercises near the strait, the route for a fifth of the world’s oil supply. But Iran’s military has made no attempts to disrupt oil tanker traffic -- which the U.S. and allies have said would bring a swift response.
Two American warships, one in front and one in the rear, escorted the Abraham Lincoln on its midday journey through the strait and into the Arabian Sea after nearly three weeks in the Gulf, which is frequently visited by U.S. warships and includes the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain. The strait is only about 30 miles (50 kilometers) across at its narrowest point.
On one side, the barren, fjord-like mountains of Oman were visible through the haze. Iran's coast was just beyond the horizon on the other side of the ship, but too far away to be seen.
Gunners in red jerseys manned the 50-caliber machine guns as the ships moved out of the Gulf. An Iranian patrol boat pulled nearby.
Later, just after the Lincoln rounded the “knuckle” -- the nub of Oman jutting out at the southern end of the strait - an Iranian patrol plane buzzed overhead. Another patrol boat was waiting further down the coast, said Rear Adm. Troy Shoemaker, commander of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Force.
Besides Iran’s regular patrol boats, the Revolutionary Guard operates a large number of small, fast-attack boats. Some are armed with only a machine gun, while others also carry anti-ship missiles. They can be difficult to spot because they resemble the swift-moving smuggling boats that ply the strait.
Shoemaker said none of those fast boats appeared Tuesday, likely deterred by the rough seas.
He predicted before the transit that the Iranians would likely keep a close eye on the Lincoln throughout its passage, including with ground-based radars. He wasn't surprised by the attention from Iranian forces.
“We would do the same things off the coast of the United States ... It's more than reasonable. We’re operating in their backyard,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for years.”
Several U.S. choppers flanked the carrier group throughout the transit, watching out for potentially hostile vessels and relaying real-time pictures back to the Lincoln's crew.
Dozens of F/A-18 strike fighters and other planes in Lincoln’s embarked air wing sat parked silently on deck throughout the trip. Today was a no-fly day for their crews, though some fighters were prepped and armed, ready to launch in as little as 15 minutes should things go wrong.
Officers on board were eager to describe the transit, in which the Lincoln was accompanied by the cruiser USS Cape St. George and destroyer USS Sterett, as a routine maneuver despite the growing speculation that Israel could launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. and allies fear Iran’s uranium enrichment program could eventually lead to the production of weapons-grade nuclear material. Iran claims it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
“I wouldn’t characterize ... us going through the strait as: ‘Hey, this is a huge show of force, we're coming through.’ It’s an international strait to transit. We're going from one body of water to the other,” said Capt. John Alexander, the Lincoln’s commanding officer, as preparations for the trip got under way late Monday.
The Lincoln is expected to provide air support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan starting Thursday. Navy brass in the Gulf say another American carrier is due back through the strait soon, but gave no firm timetables.
Urging tougher sanctions
Israeli vice prime minister Silvan Shalom on Tuesday called on the international community to tighten sanctions against Iran in order to convince Tehran to give up its nuclear program, according to AFP.
Shalom raised the issue with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during talks that also touched on the escalating violence in Syria and the impasse in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Israel believes the Iranians should stop their nuclear program and should do it immediately,” Shalom told a press conference.
Shalom said that Iran would like to change the types of regimes in the Middle East and take control of all the oil fields in the region as part of its quest for power, according to AP.
The ancient Persian Empire encompassed millions of miles (kilometers) in Asia, Africa and Europe.
Shalom said if Iranians can change regimes in the Mideast, control its oil wealth and produce a nuclear bomb, “they believe that they will be once again a major superpower in the world.”
Iranian diplomats at the U.N. did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Israel views Iran as a threat to its existence, citing Iranian calls for Israel’s destruction, Iran’s missile technology capable of hitting Israel, and its support for anti-Israel militant groups.
Shalom hailed the recent moves by the United States and the European Union to ramp up sanctions against the Islamic republic, which the West and Israel suspects is trying to produce a nuclear bomb despite Tehran's repeated denials.
“We would like to believe that these sanctions, if they are tough enough, will bring the Iranians maybe to give up” their disputed atomic program, Shalom said.
He sidestepped several questions on whether Israel is planning a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear installations.
Shalom said Ban said he was shocked by the attacks targeting Israeli embassy staff in India and Georgia on Monday, and pointed the finger of blame at Iran.
“We know that Iran and its collaborators are behind that attack,” he said, adding that Israel would “continue to cooperate with the governments and the security forces” abroad to ensure the safety of Israeli citizens.
Embassy cars were attacked in New Delhi and Tbilisi, which left an Israeli woman diplomat critically injured in the Indian capital. In Georgia, the bomb was dismantled before it exploded.
Then on Tuesday, a suspected Iranian bomber had his legs blown off as he hurled a grenade at Thai police, officials said. Israel also accused Tehran of being behind that attack.