General Joseph Votel was on the bridge as one of the armed Iranian boats cut right in front of the ship’s path, and the other followed closely to the side.
The top U.S. general had been visiting the vessel to observe routine aircraft operations. Votel had watched as a U.S. Marine Corps F-35 stealth fighter jet made a flyby past the Essex, then returned to demonstrate the plane’s ability to land vertically on deck, according to the Associated Press.
A total of six of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy FIACs (fast inshore attack craft) were seen heading toward both the USS Essex and Rushmore, reported NBC News. The U.S. general said he was not surprised to see the fast boats in the region, and he joked around with the crew about the encounter.
“I really appreciate you arranging for the Iranians to be here,” Votel said, according to AP.
A pair of Iranian fast boats approached the USS Essex in the Persian Gulf on Friday as the top U.S. general in charge of operations throughout the Middle East visited sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship, Pentagon officials said https://t.co/Salr0EQEsd
— Stars and Stripes (@starsandstripes) October 26, 2018
An Iranian sailor contacted the Essex over radio transmission and asked questions about the identity of the ship and what its intentions were. The captain of the Essex, Brian Mutty, said the interaction was not dangerous, but was “annoying,” reported NBC.
Earlier that same day, another radio transmission from the Iranians warned that they would shoot at a U.S. helicopter if the Essex continued to fly it near Iranian boats.
However, the U.S. ships did not change its plans and the helicopter kept flying. Meanwhile, no shots were fired.
Navy Captain Jerry Olin told AP that there are hundreds of Iran’s fast boats in the area. It’s typical for the boats to approach U.S. ships and take pictures, and the Iranians have harassed or threatened the U.S. Navy in the past, for example when the ships pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
“It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we have some Iranian interest today around perhaps one of the most significant ships we have in the Arabian gulf right now,” Votel said to reporters on the Essex.