TEHRAN: In this file photo, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the media. – AFP

DUBAI: Warships from Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “aggressively” approached two American vessels in Gulf waters earlier this month, the US navy said yesterday, the first tense incident this year. This comes amid talks in Vienna between Iran and major powers on the mechanics of a US return to a landmark 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former president Donald Trump.

The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet said an Iranian Harth 55 vessel-a catamaran-type ship-along with three fast attack crafts, approached the two US coast guard boats conducting routine security patrols on April 2. “The Harth 55 repeatedly crossed the bows of the US vessels at an unnecessarily close range, including crossings both (US ships) Wrangell and Monomoy’s bows at a 70 yard (64 meter) closest point of approach,” a US statement said. “The Harth 55 closed aggressively on Wrangell’s bow, resulting in Wrangell manoeuvering to avoid collision while sounding five short blasts from the ship’s horn.”

US navy footage showed an Iranian ship cut in front of a US vessel, which abruptly moved to avoid collision. “The US crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio, five short blasts from the ships’ horns, and while the Harth 55 responded to the bridge-to-bridge radio queries, they continued the unsafe manoeuvres,” the statement added.

It said the Iranian ships moved away after approximately three hours in the encounter, that the US navy “deemed unsafe and unprofessional”. The remaining partners to the 2015 nuclear deal have been engaged in discussions aimed to return Washington to the accord it withdrew from and to lift the sanctions it reimposed on Iran, and Tehran’s return to nuclear commitments it cut in retaliation.

Iran has repeatedly demanded that all US sanctions reimposed since 2018 be lifted, and stressed its readiness to return to nuclear commitments once it has been verified. A US delegation is present at Vienna but holding no direct talks with Iranians, while the European Union acts as a intermediary and coordinates between the two.

Meanwhile, Iran’s government said yesterday an investigation had been ordered into leaked audio of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif bemoaning the military’s influence, after its emergence stirred controversy ahead of presidential elections. President Hassan Rouhani ordered the probe to identify who leaked the “stolen” three-hour recording that has sparked anger among conservatives in the Islamic republic. “In the Islamic republic the military field rules,” Zarif said in the audiotape, quoted by the New York Times. “I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”

Comments he made about Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations arm who was killed in a US air strike last year, hit a nerve. Rouhani’s moderate government has sought to downplay the remarks, which were leaked ahead of June presidential elections and as Iran and world powers discuss ways to revive a 2015 nuclear accord. “The president has ordered the intelligence ministry to identify the agents of this conspiracy,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

“We believe this theft of documents is a conspiracy against the government, the system, the integrity of effective domestic institutions, and also against our national interests.” Zarif has yet to comment on the controversy, but yesterday he posted an audio message on Instagram, saying “I believe you should not work for history… I say that don’t worry about history so much, but worry about God and the people”.

His ministry later published a video showing pictures of Zarif and Soleimani, accompanied with a quote it said was taken from the recording. “I believe that our country suffered a great blow after the departure of martyr Soleimani,” it read. “These are my beliefs and I have declared them everywhere, even in private meetings.” Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh did not deny the authenticity of the recording but said on Monday that it was cut from a seven-hour discussion that included “personal opinions”.

The government spokesman emphasized that “such differences of opinion” were common between Iranian authorities, and they eventually led to “a united policy”. Ultra-conservative Kayhan daily suggested the recording may have been leaked by Rouhani’s government to boost its own popularity. It said while Zarif had been “sacrificed”, he provided Iran’s enemies with “intelligence and ammunition”. Vatan-e Emrooz published a large picture of Zarif on its front page, with the headline “Despicable” in red. “Diplomacy must follow the path of increasing the system’s power,” it said.

Javan daily said Soleimani was “physically assassinated (upon) the order of the most wretched creature of the world… America’s president”. But Zarif had “assassinated (Soleimani’s) character”, it added. Reformist newspapers mostly questioned who stood to gain from the leak. Shargh daily said Zarif’s complaints heard in the audio do not show “a strong and independent foreign minister that would in turn herald a strong and independent head of state”.

The leak was “meant to eliminate Zarif,” it added. Quoting veteran journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi, Arman-e Melli newspaper asked why Rouhani’s government allowed itself to be “used by others” and questioned why it should remain in power. – AFP