By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008
The Pentagon said yesterday that the apparent radio threat to bomb U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf last weekend may not have come from the five Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats that approached them -- and may not even have been intended against U.S. targets.
The communication Sunday was made on radio channel 16, a common marine frequency used by ships and others in the region. "It could have been a threat aimed at some other nation or a myriad of other things," said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp IV, a spokesman for the Navy.
In the radio message recorded by the Navy, a heavily accented voice said: "I am coming to you. You will explode after a few minutes." But Farsi speakers and Iranians told The Washington Post that the accent did not sound Iranian.
In part because of the threatening language, the United States has elevated the encounter into an international incident. Twice this week, President Bush criticized Iran's behavior as provocative and warned of "serious consequences" if it happens again. He is due to head today to the Gulf area, where containing Iran is expected to be a major theme of his talks in five oil-rich sheikdoms.
Pentagon officials insist that they never claimed Iran made the threat. "No one in the military has said that the transmission emanated from those boats. But when they hear it simultaneously to the behavior of those boats, it only adds to the tension," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. "If this verbal threat emanated from something or someone unrelated to the five boats, it would not lessen the threat from those boats."
The warning was picked up on a bridge-to-bridge communication received by many ships in the region about seven minutes after the five Iranian patrol boats first appeared on the horizon, Thorp said. The main threat, Pentagon officials said, was the way the five boats swarmed erratically around the USS Port Royal, an Aegis cruiser, and its accompanying frigate and destroyer, and then dropped small, white, box-like items in the water.
"When you get a bridge-to-bridge call, you have no way of knowing where it came from," Thorp said. "Nobody ever, with any certainty, knew it was from them. But it did escalate it up a notch as it was happening at the same time" that the patrol boats, manned by Revolutionary Guards, engaged in menacing behavior, Thorp said.
Yet the Pentagon had consistently given the impression that the threat was linked to the Iranian boats.
"This is more serious because of the aggregate of the actions, the coordinated movement of the ships, the boats, the aggressive maneuvering, the more or less simultaneous radio communication, the dropping of objects. . . . So, yes, it's more serious than we have seen," Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, head of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said at a briefing on Monday.
The Pentagon's audiotape of the warning was released Tuesday, with the videotape, in an abridged four-minute package of the incident, which U.S. officials said lasted between 20 and 30 minutes. The U.S. ships were within seconds of opening fire on the Iranian speedboats when the boats turned and headed toward Iran, Pentagon officials said.
The radio threat was merely a "sideshow" to the physical threat, a senior U.S. official familiar with the incident said. "What was the command-and-control mechanism here? Was Tehran aware of what they were doing? They made these provocative moves. The radio was a sideshow to the event," he said.
To further challenge the U.S. version, Iran yesterday released what it asserted was an abridged video of the same incident, which shows a calm exchange. "Slowly get a little closer . . . can't make out the ship number," says a Revolutionary Guardsman on a small patrol boat, speaking in Farsi. "I hear something being announced from its loudspeakers; what is it saying? I think they're talking to us."
"Which channel?" says a second Iranian. "Coalition warship 73," he says, speaking in English through his radio mike. "This Iranian navy patrol boat. Request side number . . . operating in the area this time."
A U.S. ship radios back: "This is coalition warship 73. I read you loud and clear."
The five-minute video, released by Iranian television yesterday, offers no indication of the tensions that supposedly sparked the encounter between U.S. and Iranian vessels in the Strait of Hormuz -- and no indication of an intention to attack. The Pentagon said it does not dispute anything in the Iranian video.
In Tehran, Revolutionary Guards Brig. Gen. Ali Fadavi charged that the United States was creating a "media fuss," the Fars News Agency reported. He said the Iranian objective was to obtain registration numbers that were unreadable.
The U.S. presence in the Gulf's international waters is a sensitive issue in Iran because the USS Vincennes, another Aegis cruiser, shot down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, killing all 290 people on board. The United States at first contended that it was a warplane and then said that it was outside the civilian air corridor and did not respond to radio calls. Both were untrue, and the radio calls were made on military frequencies to which the airliner did not have access. A subsequent investigation showed that the U.S. ship was off course.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Iranian video does not refute the U.S. version. "Simply choosing not to reveal the careless and reckless actions in this video does not change the facts from what took place," he said in an e-mail.
The United States yesterday sent an official protest to Tehran through Switzerland, while Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates charged that Iran had acted aggressively. "What concerned us was, first, the fact that there were five of these boats and, second, that they came as close as they did to our ships and behaved in a pretty aggressive manner," he said at a news conference.
Quoting former defense secretary William S. Cohen, Gates said: " 'Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?' I think that aptly characterizes and appropriately characterizes the Iranian claim."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.