Eyes on Iran, navy in Gulf stays at ready

ABOARD THE U.S.S. WHIRLWIND, in the Persian Gulf — In the past six months, this small United States Navy coastal patrol ship has engaged Iranian gunboats three times in international waters here.
 Crew members on both sides came up on deck to snap photographs or take video from 300 yards away — souvenirs for the Americans, surveillance for the Iranians, Navy officials say — before the vessels went their own ways without incident.

“They eyeballed us, and we eyeballed them right back, but everything was professional,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jared W. Samuelson, 33, the skipper of the Whirlwind and its 27-member crew. “It was not confrontational.”

That has not always been the case in recent years, as Iranian fast-attack boats have harassed American warships and in recent months as the government in Tehran has deployed remotely piloted aircraft that carry surveillance pods and that someday may carry rockets.

There are multiple political bases of power in Iran. In the aftermath of the temporary nuclear agreement reached last month between the world powers and the moderate government of Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, it was unclear to American officials whether Iran’s hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps might try to provoke a conflict with the United States Navy to undercut the accord.

The navy of the Revolutionary Guards consists of fast-attack speedboats with high-powered machine guns and torpedoes, and crews that in the past employed guerrilla tactics, including swarming perilously close to American warships.

Iran has scaled back its most belligerent naval activities in recent years, and senior Navy officials said they saw no major shifts after the nuclear deal. “We haven’t detected any notable change in their behavior,” said Vice Adm. John W. Miller, commander of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which has its longtime headquarters in Bahrain, directly across the water from Iran.

That said, the United States is taking no chances. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told skittish Gulf allies who gathered in Bahrain on Friday and Saturday that the United States would maintain military pressure on Iran while giving diplomacy a chance to work.

Last year, the Pentagon moved significant military reinforcements into the Gulf to deter the Iranian military from any possible attempt to shut the Strait of Hormuz, through which 450 vessels pass every day, many carrying oil, natural gas and other energy products.

As part of that longer-term effort, the number of coastal patrol ships based in Bahrain to conduct maritime security missions is set to double, to 10 ships, by next spring, from five vessels two years ago. Six Coast Guard vessels perform similar duties. Ship crews are now assigned one- and two-year tours, instead of rotating every six months.

That change increases cohesion among crew members, improves their understanding about operating in the complex Gulf environment and, Navy officials say, also lessens the chance of a miscalculation that could lead to unintended hostilities.

The patrol ships are among the Navy’s smallest. Six of the 179-foot Whirlwinds placed end to end would still come up shorter than one of the behemoth American aircraft carriers that also ply the Gulf waters.

But they are about the same size as the ships used by many of the Gulf states like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and thus they have developed an unusual kinship with their maritime brethren in the region.

“These ships are less intimidating to the local navies,” said Cmdr. John Howard, 44, who oversees the eight patrol vessels now stationed in Bahrain. “They’re more like their own ships, and so they can relate to these ships better.”

The Whirlwind’s crew of 24 sailors and four officers is a tight-knit group, and small enough that everyone is trained in more than one job. The ship’s cook can stand occasional security duty with his M-4 rifle.

The crew of the dull gray vessel, commissioned in 1995, is filled with the diverse personal stories typical of today’s Navy. George Velasquez, 49, a Philippine-born corpsman, or medic, from Chicago, cares for minor cuts, bruises and seasickness, a respite from the daily trauma he treated during tours with the Marines in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Second Lt. Graig Withrow, 31, the ship’s new operations and navigational officer, quit his job as a high school music teacher in Southern California three years ago to join the Navy.

Commander Samuelson, a bespectacled man who majored in journalism at the University of Southern California, followed the footsteps of an uncle and grandfather, both naval officers. He took command of the Whirlwind’s crew in February, after a stint as an operations officer on a Navy destroyer and a three-year exchange program with the German Navy.

The Whirlwind typically carries out patrols for up to a month at a time. Much of its work resembles that of a beat cop making the rounds. The ship often asks permission to come aboard one of the scores of tiny fishing or cargo boats that traverse the Gulf. There, crew members pass out gloves, first-aid kits and sunglasses to ward off glare in the searing 120-degree summer days.

In exchange, they ask fishermen about any suspicious activity they have seen, including by pirates and smugglers. The Navy forwards that information to regional partners and lets their navies investigate or interdict the suspect vessels in their territorial waters. The practice builds confidence and skill among allies, and relieves pressure on the United States to be the major enforcer in the Gulf, Navy officials said.

And then there is the occasional brinkmanship with the Iranian Navy gunboats in these waters, which the Navy calls the Arabian Gulf, not wanting to cede even a place name to Tehran.

During a large demining exercise last year, several Iranian patrol boats steamed close to some of the allied vessels, presumably to conduct surveillance, said a Navy official who monitored the incident. As the Iranians drew closer and closer, an American ship moved to block them from interfering with the exercise. The jockeying for position continued, until the Iranian captain finally saluted his American counterpart and sailed off.

A more significant confrontation between the United States and the Revolutionary Guards was in 2008, when five of Iran’s armed speedboats made aggressive maneuvers as they approached three American warships in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz.

The commander of a Navy destroyer was on the verge of issuing an order to fire when the speedboats pulled away; no shots were fired. That is why ships like Whirlwind must stay vigilant, Navy officials said.

During a 10-hour trip in the Gulf last week, 50 miles from the Navy base in Bahrain, the Whirlwind’s crew performed a series of tests in preparation for a major inspection next year.

They need to work out a few kinks before then. One of the diesel-powered engines overheated after a seawater cooling system broke down, forcing the ship to operate at 80 percent of its top speed. A 25-millimeter machine gun suddenly malfunctioned toward the end of its live-fire drill.

Senior officers and crew members insisted that bad luck and normal wear and tear from busy operations, not budget cuts in Washington, were to blame for the minor mishaps.

“There’s ample time to get everything corrected,” said Commander Samuelson, trying hard not to show his disappointment.

By The New York Times 


The Iran Project is not responsible for the content of quoted articles.