Middle East

Is Iran downplaying Iranian helicopter buzzing a US naval ship?

Reports emerged online on Saturday that an Iranian military helicopter allegedly flew close to the USS Essex, days after reports said the USS Essex and the British Royal navy Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier had conducted an interoperability training.

The Essex is a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship. It was supposedly in the Gulf of Oman in recent days, and has elements of the 11 Marine Expeditionary Unit on board, according to the earlier reports.  

The Essex is part of the Amphibious Ready Group which has three ships, according to USNI News, a “landing helicopter dock USS Essex (LHD-2), amphibious transport dock USS Portland (LPD-27) and amphibious dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52).” The Portland is in the Red Sea for training that took place recently with Israel and Gulf partners. 

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According to the reports, there are MV-22B Ospreys on the Essex, part of the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 165. Essex has been in the area since August when it deployed to Bahrain.  

The recent video lasts 42 seconds and is shot from the cockpit of the alleged Iranian helicopter. It comes close to the US ship, and helicopters can be seen on the deck. Last week, reports said the Essex was apparently involved in an incident in which Iranian drones approached the ship. Additionally, Iran also accused the US of “piracy” and claimed the US Navy tried to detain a ship carrying Iranian oil. Iranian helicopter-borne commandos then seized the Vietnamese-owned oil tanker and took the oil. 

The Iranian ship Khark is seen at an undisclosed location in Iran, September 10,2020. (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

The video of the helicopter buzzing the ship came from Telegram but Iranian media seems to be downplaying the incident.

The incident wasn’t mentioned on Fars News on Saturday and Tasnim only mentioned it by noting that “Zionist” media were reporting the story. This leaves questions about the incident and what the messaging behind it might be.

US-Israel partnerships and joint training appear to be at an all-time high. There was Blue Flag last month with eight air forces gathered in Israel, the visit of the UAE air force commander to Israel, a joint training with the US Marines, and a joint naval drill in the Red Sea with the UAE and Bahrain. There have been more US strategic bombers in the region as wellI kn.  B-1 bombers overflew Israel on October 30 with an IDF escort. For the second time in a month the B-1s were escorted late last week. 

Iran’s Tasnim news reported that foreign reports have discussed the helicopter incident, saying that “the report goes on to say that the Iranian pilot portrayed and documented his presence on board the USS Essex aircraft carrier in front of the eyes of the US military from inside his cabin.” Tasnim says “these unusual images come as Iran conducts large-scale exercises in the northern Indian Ocean and parts of the Red Sea.” Iran references it Zulfiqar 1400 joint exercise.  

So why was Iranian media hesitant to jump on this story? Last week, Iran appears to have invented a story about an incident with the US navy, claiming it was able to abscond with a ship under the nose of 5th Fleet. Now Iran isn’t talking.

So why isn’t it bragging?

This isn’t the first time Iranian IRGC fast boats or drones or other Iranian military assets have harassed the US Navy. The US fired warning shots in April and May at Iranian IRGC naval ships. The US has warned of “unprofessional” incidents like this. 

It’s possible that Iran leaked this video to see how Israel and other media might react. If Iran is downplaying it at first, that means it is thinking to gauge US reactions. This contrasts other times that Iran seeks to take credit for incidents. Since 2019 Iran has increased tensions with the US. It has mined ships and launched increased drone attacks, and it has been striking at Saudi Arabia, US facilities in Iraq and Syria, and aiding the Houthis in Yemen. Iran also used a drone to attack a commercial ship in July in the Gulf of Oman. Iran’s Saviz spy ship was damaged in April in the Red Sea. Iran has attacked commercial vessels over the last eight months, apparently thinking it is targeting Israel-linked ships.  

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