DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers has done little to stop the country from pursuing activities beyond its shores that the U.S. considers destabilizing, the U.S. naval commander charged with securing the waters around the Arabian Peninsula said Sunday.
Vice Adm. Kevin Donegan, commander of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, made the comments during an interview with The Associated Press at the opening day of the Dubai Airshow.
He was careful not to underplay the significance of Tehran’s willingness to come to the negotiating table to hammer out a deal completed in July that gives it broad sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
But he noted that other actions such as attempts to smuggle military equipment to Yemen and harassing ships transiting the Gulf continue just as they did before the agreement.
“We’re still concerned about Iran’s behavior overall. Positive about the nuclear agreement, but concerned … about some of their malign behavior related to other things unrelated to the nuclear issue,” he said.
Aside from the nuclear negotiations, “I don’t know that we’ve seen a change in behavior,” he added, speaking aboard a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol plane on display at the biennial show.
Donegan, a former Navy fighter pilot and aircraft carrier commander, took over as head of the 5th Fleet in September.
The naval force is based in the tiny Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain, just off the coast of Saudi Arabia. It is responsible for operations in a 2.5 million-square-mile area that includes the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway wedged between Iran and Oman that is the route for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea.
In September, a ship assigned to a multinational naval force led by the 5th Fleet commander intercepted a vessel carrying anti-tank missiles and other equipment believed to be from Iran.
That seizure came months after the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier and guided missile cruiser to the Arabian Sea amid concerns that a convoy of Iranian cargo ships was sending combat vehicles and other military equipment to Shiite rebels in Yemen.
“We don’t think that was the only shipment that was working its way to Yemen,” Donegan said. He declined to elaborate.
Iran acknowledges supporting the Yemeni rebels but denies it provides them any military aid.
In the run-up to the nuclear deal, Iranian forces seized a Marshall Islands-flagged cargo ship, claiming that the shipping company that chartered it owed money to an Iranian firm.
Days after it was released, an Iranian naval patrol opened fire on a Singapore-flagged commercial ship in the Persian Gulf. That incident was apparently linked to a financial dispute stemming from damage to an Iranian oil platform.
U.S. Navy ships continue to face occasional harassment from Iranian patrols, Donegan said. While most encounters with the Iranians are professional, they occasionally get too close in ways that are “unsafe,” he said.
“The behavior we’ve seen is about what we’ve come to expect,” he said. “They’ll like to intercept our ships, especially the combatants, as they’re going through the straits or in other places in the Gulf. They like to show that they can shoot weapons when they’re in proximity.”
In the heavily trafficked Strait of Hormuz, Iranian vessels have occasionally approached commercial ships passing through and told them they must fly an Iranian flag to ensure their safe passage, Donegan added.
For the first time since 2007, the United States has no aircraft carrier stationed in the Gulf. The last one left several weeks ago, and a replacement is not due until late this year.
The Navy says maintenance needs after several years of heavy reliance on its carrier fleet and longer-than-usual deployments are to blame for the gap in coverage.
Donegan said the U.S. can manage without a carrier for the time being even as it continues to handle the bulk of coalition airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, though he acknowledged he “wouldn’t want sustain this for a long period.”
U.S. Air Force and other military aircraft are stationed around the Gulf, Turkey and elsewhere in the region. The USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship that resembles a small aircraft carrier and has planes and helicopters, also operates in the theater.
Donegan insisted that the temporary lack of a carrier is not a signal of the U.S. pulling back from the region – a growing fear among Washington’s Gulf Arab allies.
“I don’t think that anyone who looks at it too deeply is going to say that in any way we’re leaving. Quite the contrary,” he said. “We’re here, and you can expect us to stay.”