US, Iran in tense naval incident; Tehran prepares new centrifuges

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A US Navy warship fired a warning flame to deflect an Iranian Revolutionary Guards speedboat that headed straight for it during a tense encounter in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, said officials Tuesday.

Monday’s incident involving the Guards and Navy comes as tensions remain high over stalled negotiations over Iran’s ruptured nuclear deal with world powers and as Tehran enriches uranium more than ever to a weapons level under waning 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 vessel USS Sirocco and Spearhead-class expedition express transport USNS Choctaw County were in close encounter with three Iranian fast boats as they passed through the Strait of Hormuz to enter the Persian Gulf, the navy said.

In a video released by the Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, a fast Guard Boghammar is seen turning head-on at the Sirocco. The Sirocco blows its horn repeatedly on the Boghammar, which turns away as it approaches. The flare shot can be heard but not seen as the Boghammar passes over the Sirocco with the Iranian flag overhead.

The Navy said the Boghammar came within 50 yards (45 meters) of the Sirocco, increasing the risk of the ships crossing each other. The total encounter lasted about an hour, the Navy said.

The watch’s “actions failed to meet international standards of professional or safe maritime conduct, 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 traded oil passes through the strait.

The Navy separately told The Associated Press that this was the second so-called “unsafe and unprofessional” incident it had with Iran in recent months.

On March 4, three guard ships had a tense confrontation for more than two hours with Navy and US Coast Guard ships as they exited the Persian Gulf through the strait, the navy said. In that incident, the Guard’s catamaran, Shahid Nazeri, came within 25 yards (22 meters) of USCGC Robert Goldman, the Navy said.

“The two US Coast Guard cutters issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and deployed warning flares,” the Navy said.

The Navy did not elaborate on why it failed to announce the previous incident, especially as a larger ship got even closer to a US warship. However, that was just as a deal in Vienna between Iran and the world powers on restoring the nuclear deal seemed possible before talks broke down.

Iran and the world powers agreed a nuclear deal in 2015, with Tehran drastically curtailing uranium enrichment in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord. raising tensions in the wider Middle East and sparking a series of attacks and incidents

Talks in Vienna about 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 UN International Atomic Energy Agency surveillance cameras. The agency’s head warned it could deal a “fatal blow” to the nuclear deal.

On Tuesday, the IAEA said its inspectors verified that Iran is preparing to enrich uranium through a new cascade of 166 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its underground Fordo facility. Iran already has a cascade of IR-6s in operation in Fordo, near the holy Shia city of Qom, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran. They enrich up to 20% purity.

The IAEA said Iran has not yet told it at what level the second cascade will enrich. Iran has not yet publicly recognized the new cascade.

The 2015 nuclear deal banned all enrichment at Fordo. Shielded by mountains, the facility 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 hard enough to lead US officials to suspect it had military purpose when they made the site public in 2009.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said America remained “concerned that Iran will continue to deploy advanced centrifuges well beyond the limits of what is mandated in the” nuclear deal.

“Fissile material breakthrough time has been drastically reduced from about a year to what can now be measured in weeks or even less. We are deeply concerned about the current state of Iran’s nuclear program,” he said. who want to see strict limits that the verification and control regime is reimposing on Iran.”

between the tensions, Israel suspected of carrying out a series of attacks targeting the country in and outside Iran, including the assassination of the architect of its one-time military nuclear program with a remote controlled machine gun

On Tuesday, the state-run IRNA news agency quoted the prosecutor of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province as saying that three people arrested there in April on suspicion of collaborating with Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency wanted to kill Iranian nuclear scientists.

It is unclear why the three would have been in Sistan and Baluchistan, which have no nuclear sites. The troubled province bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan faces sporadic attacks from armed insurgents.

Meanwhile, a Brigadier General of the Guards admitted that a deadly May explosion at an arms factory in Parchin, east of Tehran, was the result of “industrial sabotage.” Mohammadreza Hassani Ahangar, the head of Imam Hossein University of the Guard, said in comments quoted Monday evening by a state television affiliate that an unnamed enemy launched the sabotage that killed an engineer and injured another worker amid suspected Israeli attacks

Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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

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