Iran could be stoking tension in the Arabian Gulf as part of a campaign to distract attention from its dire domestic situation during the coronavirus pandemic, experts have said.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps navy has increased its operations. Eleven fast boats harassed US warships on Wednesday and navy members boarded a Hong Kong-registered ship the previous day.
The boats used aggressive tactics, coming within 10 metres of American warships in the Gulf in what the US Navy described as a series of “dangerous and harassing approaches”.
The Tehran government is suffering from international sanctions, the coronavirus and the exceptionally low prices for oil, on which it largely depends for income.
“Iran is attempting to show its strength while trying to avoid escalation,” said Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute.
“The government is under tremendous domestic and economic pressure because of sanctions and the virus.
“But Iran does not want to escalate beyond a certain point.
"It has not yet changed its calculus to do something above the US retaliation threshold that would provoke a severe response from Washington.
"Tehran clearly understands that killing US personnel is very much a red line for President Trump, with the chances of escalation extremely high.”
Mr Chalmers said that since the US killed top Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in a drone strike in January, it had been notable how much more restrained Iran and its proxies had become in military action.
Nick Childs, a maritime expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said it was possible that the Iranians “are stepping up military activity during Covid 19 with a domestic audience in mind".
“This might also be a probing exercise to see if its enemies are on their guard during the current pandemic and how they will respond to having their nerve tested,” Mr Childs said.
An intelligence source said the Iranians could be “stepping up military activity in the Gulf as part of a campaign to deflect attention away from coronavirus fallout”.
Iran’s Health Ministry reported that the death toll from Covid-19 could be double the reported figure of 4,869.
With almost 80,000 reported cases of the virus, Iran has the eighth highest total in the world.
The Tehran regime has been accused of a chaotic approach to tackling the crisis, which has been compounded by its military activity.
“As expected, Iran is continuing to flex muscle amid the global pandemic,” Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US, wrote on Twitter.
"It’s neither deterred nor about to hit the pause button on tensions with the US to focus on public health."
A Royal Navy officer said the Iranians were playing an “extremely high-risk strategy”, because fast boats could be mistaken for suicide attacks.
“Any miscalculation by either side could lead to loss of life and greater escalation,” the officer said.
The UK Maritime Trade Operations base has warned of "water-borne improvised explosive devices" in the wider area.