By Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
We're coming at you, the Iranian radio transmission warned. Your ships will explode in a couple of minutes.
The United States and Iran reached the verge of a military confrontation early Sunday after five Iranian patrol boats sped toward the USS Port Royal and two accompanying ships as they crossed the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf. The Iranian vessels, manned by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, broke into two groups and "maneuvered aggressively" on both sides of the U.S. ships, coming as close as 500 yards, recounted Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
After the radio transmission, two of the Iranian boats dropped "white box-like objects" into the water, Cosgriff said. The U.S. ships responded with evasive maneuvers, radioed warnings to the Iranians and sounded ships' whistles, while ordering increased readiness of their own vessels. After their messages were not heeded, the U.S. ships prepared to fire in self-defense, but the Iranians abruptly turned and sped north toward their territorial waters.
The incident, which lasted less than 30 minutes, comes on the eve of President Bush's trip to the Middle East, in which he is expected to seek support from Gulf nations for a tougher stance against Tehran. The Bush administration called the episode a serious provocation and warned Iran about the dangers of such actions.
"I found the action by the Iranians quite troubling, actually, and a matter of real concern," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday while visiting the USS New Orleans in San Diego. "This is a very volatile area, and the risk of an incident . . . escalating is real. I can't imagine what was on their minds."
Gates said the incident "is a reminder that there is a very unpredictable government in Tehran," adding that "it would be nice to see the Iranian government disavow this action and say that it won't happen again." U.S. and Iranian naval vessels have been involved in two or three similar events over the past year, but they were "not quite as dramatic as this one," he said.
Yesterday, Iran played down the encounter as a "regular and natural issue."
"That's something normal taking place every now and then for each party and it is settled after identification of the two parties," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency. Similar incidents in the past were resolved when the two sides identified each other, he said.
U.S. officials disputed the claim. "It was reckless and dangerous activity on the part of the Iranians," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "It could have escalated potentially to the level at which they would have posed a hostile threat and would have required further action." The U.S. government "expects an explanation, and we clearly expect the Iranians to cease these activities that are dangerous," he said.
U.S. military officials said U.S. ships are well marked and well known. The Port Royal is an Aegis cruiser, and the two accompanying ships were the USS Hopper, a destroyer, and the USS Ingraham, a frigate.
"Based on all the information that is available to me," Gates said, "this is a one-sided provocation."
Iran engaged in a showdown with Britain in the Gulf last spring, when Revolutionary Guard naval vessels seized 15 British sailors and Marines patrolling for smuggled goods in the Persian Gulf. The Britons were held in Tehran for 12 days.
The United States is also sensitive about the intentions of small speedboats following the 2000 attack by a single craft on the USS Cole during a refueling stop in Yemen, resulting in the deaths of 17 American sailors.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated in the past year over Iranian aid to Shiite militants in Iraq as well as Tehran's controversial nuclear energy program. The United States and its allies remain particularly concerned about Tehran's refusal to heed two U.N. resolutions demanding that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can be used for peaceful nuclear energy and to develop a nuclear weapon. A U.S. intelligence report last month concluding that Iran suspended its weapons program in 2003 has not defused the issue.
In October, the Bush administration imposed tough unilateral sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force, as well as Iranian banks and businesses linked to weapons proliferation. The administration is pressing to get similar measures passed this month in a third U.N. resolution.
Iran has in turn blasted the Bush administration for interfering in the Middle East. "America has not been successful in isolating Iran," the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Sunday. "We are witnessing the expansion of Iran's relations with different countries."
Iran's media have focused heavily on Bush's impending visit. "American officials are extremely worried about how things are unfolding in the Middle East, and the only way they found to cover the failure of American plans is to arrange for the American president to go on a boisterous visit to the Middle East so the razzmatazz and propaganda surrounding this visit overshadows their serious failures in the region," the conservative Jomhuri Eslami editorialized over the weekend.
Yesterday, two U.S. Navy fighter jets collided in flight and crashed into the Persian Gulf, but all three pilots on board ejected and were rescued in "good condition," said Cosgriff of Central Command. The pilots were undergoing medical checks on the USS Harry Truman, the aircraft carrier from which they operated, he said.