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US: Encounter with Iran ship not hostile

The Strait of Hormuz has become a flashpoint and now tensions could escalate beyond angry rhetoric. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Last week's close encounter between U.S. ships and Iranian speed boats in the Strait of Hormuz was considered "routine" and a "very common occurence" especially for ships transiting the strait, a senior defense official and a U.S. military official tell NBC News.

According to the officials, the U.S. Navy amphibious ship New Orleans was heading through the Strait of Hormuz nearing the Persian Gulf on Jan. 6 when three Iranian boats approached at high speed.  The New Orleans radioed the usual warning to the fast boats to keep their distance.  The Iranians did not respond by radio, but simply turned and sped away. The fast boats never got closer than 700 yards.

On the same day, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Adak was also approached by Iranian fast boats, one which had a machine-gun mounted on the bow.  As in the case of the New Orleans, the Iranian boats turned away when warned off.

The officials told NBC News on Friday that the encounters occurred just as the Iranians were wrapping up their "naval exercises" in the Gulf and the strait.

The officials called the encounters "predictable behavior that has been going on for years."

U.S. Navy officials said the communications were "professional," and the U.S. ships were not forced to increase their security or threat levels.

U.S. officials denied a report that Iranian boats "harassed" the U.S. ships or displayed hostile intent.

Tensions over Iran's nuclear program have escalated in recent weeks to their highest level in years. Tehran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, raising global fears of a possible military clash.

January 6, 2012 - Three Iranian Fast Boats speed within several hundred yards of the USS New Orleans, an Amphibious Transport Dock ship, as it transits the Strait of Hormuz.

Jan. 6, 2012 - Three Iranian fast boats trail in the wake of U.S. Coast Guard cutter Adak as it operates in the Persian Gulf.

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