US Navy 'comes close' to firing on Iranian boats
Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats provoke US Navy vessels in international waters, nearly prompting US to respond with live fire. American officials say they are taking Iran's actions 'deadly seriously' while Tehran brushes off incident as a simple case of mistaken identity
Iranian boats harassed and provoked three American Navy ships in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, threatening to explode the vessels, US officials said Monday, calling it the most serious such incident in years.
US forces were taking steps toward firing on the Iranians to defend themselves, said the US naval commander in the region. But the boats - believed to be from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's navy - turned and moved away, officials said.
''We take this deadly seriously,'' Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff told a US Defense Department news conference via video from Bahrain.
''It's important to remember we have been attacked by small high-speed boats in the region,'' said Cosgriff, recalling the USS Cole in which 17 US sailors were killed when an explosives-laden boat rammed the destroyer as it refueled in 2000 in Yemen's port of Aden.
Iran's Foreign Ministry said Monday that the confrontation early Sunday was ''something normal'' and was resolved, suggesting the Iranian boats had not recognized the US vessels. The Bush administration said that Iranians should ''refrain from such provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous incident in the future.''
The incident raised new tensions between Washington and Tehran as President George W. Bush prepared for his first major trip to the Middle East.
Cosgriff said the incident occurred at about 8:00 am local time Sunday as Navy cruiser USS Port Royal, destroyer USS Hopper and frigate USS Ingraham were on their way into the Persian Gulf and passing through the strait - a major oil shipping route.
Five small boats began charging the US ships, dropping box-like objects in the water in front of one of the ships and forcing the US ships to take evasive maneuvers, said Cosgriff, commander of the 5th Fleet and of naval forces in the US Central Command region.
The Iranian boats came to less than 500 yards from the US formation and at one point broke into two groups, one group going to one side and the other to the others side of the Americans. Officials said there were no injuries.
''At one point during this encounter ... the ships received a radio call that was threatening in nature, to the effect that they were closing (in on) our ships and that the ships would explode - the US ships would explode,'' Cosgriff said.
While meeting the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other regional nations Jan. 9-16, Bush is expected to try to bolster the troubled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians but is also likely to seek backing for US concerns about Iran.
Iran is under two sets of UN Security Council sanctions for its refusal to freeze uranium enrichment, a potential pathway to nuclear arms, and Washington is pushing for additional UN penalties. But a recent US intelligence assessment that it probably shut down a clandestine weapons program three years ago have led to increased resistance to such a move from permanent Security Council members Russia and China, which have strategic and trade ties with Tehran.
At the State Department Monday, spokesman Sean McCormack said he was not aware of any plans to lodge a formal protest.
''Without specific reference to this incident in the Strait of Hormuz, the United States will confront Iranian behavior where it seeks to do harm either to us or to our friends and allies in the region,'' McCormack told reporters. ''There is wide support for that within the region and certainly that's not going to change.''
Iran: Nothing out of the usual
However Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini played down the incident, suggesting it was an issue of misidentification. He did not comment on the US claims of the Iranian boats' actions.
''That is something normal that takes place every now and then for each party, and it (the problem) is settled after identification of the two parties,'' he told the state news agency IRNA.
The incident was ''similar to past ones'' that were resolved ''once the two sides recognized each other,'' he said.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guard official also described the incident as nothing unusual.
''No unusual confrontation has taken place between the Guard's patrol vessels and US ships,'' said a Guard official according to state-run television. He claimed the Iranian vessels were conducting normal patrols in the Strait of Hormuz when they saw three US ships enter the waters of the region.
''The Guard's navy vessels, as usual, asked the ships to identify themselves and they did so and continued their path,'' the TV quoted the official as saying.
Whitman said the US vessels were in international waters, making a normal transit into the Gulf through the 30-mile-wide strait. He said the Iranian boats were operating at ''distances and speeds that showed reckless and dangerous intent - reckless, dangerous and potentially hostile intent.''
In March, Iran seized 15 British sailors and marines in the Gulf and accused them of trespassing in Iranian territory while they inspected a merchant vessel. London maintained the British personnel were in Iraqi waters.
The British personnel were held for almost two weeks before being freed in what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said was a "gift" to the British people.