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State media say missile hit a support ship in a friendly-fire incident, killing as many as 19 sailors and wounding others.

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Iran’s navy fired a missile from a helicopter at a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz on Tuesday – a fake one, which Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard had towed into the strategic waterway as part of war games and military drills that illustrate the persistent threat of conflict between Tehran and Washington. 

Footage broadcast on Iranian state TV showed the replica vessel being struck by the projectile as part of an exercise Iran called “Great Prophet 14.” Iranian commandos subsequently fast-roped down from the helicopter onto the mock Nimitz-class carrier –resembling a ship the U.S. Navy routinely sails into the Persian Gulf – as other Iranian navy vessels encircle the vessel, likely a barge, kicking up white waves in their wake. 

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Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said in an emailed statement that the Navy was aware of the Iranian military exercise that involved attacking a mock-up of a vessel similar to a motionless aircraft carrier.

“This exercise has not disrupted coalition operations in the area nor had any impacts to the free flow of commerce in the Strait of Hormuz and surrounding waters,” she said. 

Still, Al Udeid Air Base and Al Dhafra Air Base military bases in the United Arab Emirates housing American troops and aircraft went on high alert when Iran sent several missiles to the southern Arabian Gulf as part of military exercises.

“The safety and resilience of our service members and coalition partners is a top priority,” said Navy Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for Central Command, the Defense Department unit that oversees the Middle East. “The United States condemns these irresponsible missile launches in the vicinity of a congested maritime shipping lane.”

In a similar exercise in 2015, Iran’s navy sank a replica U.S. aircraft carrier.

About 20% of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, the entry point to the Persian Gulf. On Wednesday, Iran also claimed to have launched additional missiles from camouflaged underground positions as part of ongoing military exercises. And state media published a graphic that photoshopped the image of a U.S. carrier into the shape of a casket, with a caption quoting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pledging to seek revenge for a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general. 

Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have sharply escalated since 2018, when President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers and reimposed sanctions that have restricted Tehran’s oil exports and brought its economy to a standstill. Last summer, Washington blamed Tehran for a series of mysterious incidents targeting the region’s oil tankers, and the two nations appeared to be on the brink of war in January after the U.S. drone strike killed Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. Iran responded by firing ballistic missiles targeting U.S. forces in Iraq.

While the coronavirus pandemic has effectively distracted both nations for months, there have been signs of a renewed potential for outright confrontation as the U.S. has pushed to extend a United Nations weapons embargo on Tehran. It expires in October.

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Last week, Iran reacted angrily after a U.S. F-15 fighter jet conducted what the Pentagoncalled a “standard visual inspection” of an Iranian commercial airliner as it flew over Syria. Iranian state media alleged that the U.S. fighter jet undertook “dangerous” maneuvers close to an Iranian passenger plane and released videos showing apparently shaken and injured passengers. The Pentagon said it believed the aircraft had strayed from an established commercial air corridor. 

In recent weeks, there have also been a series of unexplained fires and explosions in Iran at key military, security and industrial sites, including at Iran’s major nuclear facility at Natanz. The authorities have in some cases blamed accidents or human error, but the number of incidents and their locations have also prompted speculation that sabotage by an external power – Israel, for example – or a dissident group could be a factor.

“We have a long-term policy over the course of many administrations not to allow Iran to have nuclear abilities,” Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said this month, adding to the conjecture. “We take actions that are better left unsaid.”

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Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook

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