In Gulf, US Contends With Shadowy New Head of Iran's Fast-Boat Navy

In this Monday, July 2, 2012 file photo, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat escorts a passenger ship, unseen, near the spot where an Iranian airliner was shot down by a U.S. warship 24 years ago killing 290 passengers. The U.S. Navy again has accused Iranian patrol boats of harassing an American warship in the Persian Gulf, this time with one Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel stopping right in front of the USS Firebolt and nearly causing a collision. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)
In this Monday, July 2, 2012 file photo, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat escorts a passenger ship, unseen, near the spot where an Iranian airliner was shot down by a U.S. warship 24 years ago killing 290 passengers. The U.S. Navy again has accused Iranian patrol boats of harassing an American warship in the Persian Gulf, this time with one Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel stopping right in front of the USS Firebolt and nearly causing a collision. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

A second U.S. Navy destroyer, the Mason, was en route to the Gulf of Oman on Friday in a show of force, set to join the destroyer Bainbridge in the region following reported attacks on two civilian oil tankers.

U.S. leaders have blamed the attacks, which damaged the vessels but appear to have caused no casualties, on the fast-boat navy of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), now led by a shadowy figure, Adm. Alireza Tangsiri.

Tangsiri maintains that the U.S. is bluffing.

The Americans "just want to exert pressure in order to have negotiations," Tangsiri, the newly appointed commander of the IRGC navy, said last month of a recent buildup of U.S. forces in the region led by the carrier Lincoln and its strike group.

In his only known public statement, Tangsiri told Iran's Fars news agency that "we are fully prepared and, if the enemy makes any mistakes, we can in the first stage hit all American installations in the area. Surely, the enemy will not make such a mistake."

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"Not much is known about him," American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Rubin said of Tangsiri, who replaced Adm. Ali Fedavi with a mandate from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni for "accelerated growth of military capabilities and preparations."

Since Tangsiri took over earlier this year, "there's been a huge increase in Iranian [unmanned aerial vehicle] activity" over the region to monitor U.S. movements, said Rubin, an Iran specialist with close ties to the U.S. Navy.

Iran has long relied on a "good cop, bad cop" strategy at sea with the U.S. Navy, he said, with the regular Iranian navy maintaining professional contacts with American ships while the IRGC navy threatens to go rogue.

In the current crisis, Rubin said he doesn't immediately foresee the U.S. returning to the so-called "tanker wars" strategy of the 1980s, when Navy warships escorted re-flagged Kuwaiti tankers through the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz. Retired Vice Adm. Michael Franken agreed.

"There's nothing to be gained by running to the gun here" in response to two abandoned tankers burning in the Gulf, said Franken, a 36-year veteran with long experience in the region and now an analyst at the Stimson Center.

In addition, the Navy lacks the assets for prolonged escort duty, Franken said.

"It becomes a huge, huge lift for the Navy," he said. "No, I don't think we're going to be headed to tanker escorting duties."

On Friday, President Donald Trump blamed Iran for the explosions aboard the two tankers and ramped up pressure on Tehran. At the same time, he left room for the possibility of negotiations.

Trump went on the cable program "Fox & Friends" and said that the video released by U.S. Central Command showing a small Iranian boat pulling what was said to be a limpet mine from the side of one of the tankers was evidence of Iran's culpability.

"Well, Iran did do it, and you know they did do it because you saw the boat. They didn't want the evidence left behind," Trump said. "It was them that did it."

"They're a nation of terror," he said of Iran, but "they've changed a lot since I've been president."

"They're in deep, deep trouble" because of sanctions imposed by the U.S., Trump said, but "we want to get them back to the table if they want to get back. I'm in no rush."

He added that if Iran seeks to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which passes about 30% of the world's oil, "it won't be closed for long."

In a series of releases Thursday, the Navy and U.S. Central Command said the service had received a pair of distress calls within an hour from the tankers Front Altair and Kokuka Courageous, which were proceeding about 10 nautical miles from each other in the Gulf of Oman.

The Bainbridge, which had been about 40 miles from the general area, took aboard 21 crew members from the Kokuka Courageous, the Navy said. The Mason was joining the Bainbridge in the Gulf of Oman on Friday, it added.

"This is what we're out here for," said Cmdr. M. Kathryn Devine, commander of the Bainbridge, according to the Navy release. "Our mission is to ensure maritime safety and to answer the call for aid when we can."

The 23 crew members of the Altair, who had abandoned ship, were initially picked up by the cargo ship Hyundai Dubai and then transferred to an Iranian naval vessel and taken to the port city of Jask, according to a statement from the Bermuda-based Norwegian company Frontline Ltd., owner of the Front Adair.

Frontline Ltd. said the crew members were unharmed and are expected to be repatriated shortly. The ship remained afloat, it said, adding, "The cause of the explosion remains unknown to the company, although we have ruled out the possibility that it was caused by mechanical or human error."

Iran's English-language Press TV showed footage of several of the Front Adair crew members apparently in good condition. "This video refutes false reports by some media outlets claiming that Iran avoided helping the sailors working on the vessel," Press TV said.

At a news conference Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the tanker attacks.

"It is the assessment of the United States that the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for the attacks," Pompeo said.

"This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication," he added.

In response, Amir Abdollahian, chief adviser to the Iranian Parliament speaker, said in a series of Tweets on Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies and Israel's Mossad intelligence service were responsible for the tanker attacks, Iran's Fars news agency reported.

"The main suspects of the recent insecurities in the region of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman are the U.S. intelligence services and Mossad," Abdollahian said Friday, in a post on his Twitter page.

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said solid evidence of Iran's involvement in the tanker attacks is lacking, but the toll on Iranians of the U.S. sanctions makes it increasingly likely that the Tehran regime will lash out.

"Iran is looking for some kind of concession," Slavin said. "If the U.S. continues to force the embargo, you're going to see more incidents like this."

In a statement Friday from its United Nations mission, Iran acknowledged frustration at the economic sanctions.

"The U.S. economic war and terrorism against the Iranian people, as well as its massive military presence in the region, have been and continue to be the main sources of insecurity and instability in the wider Persian Gulf region and the most significant threat to its peace and security," the statement said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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