By Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 12, 2008
The small, boxlike objects dropped in the water by Iranian boats as they approached U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf on Sunday posed no threat to the American vessels, U.S. officials said yesterday, even as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff charged that the incident reflects Iran's new tactics of asymmetric warfare.
After passing the white objects, commanders on the USS Port Royal and its accompanying destroyer and frigate decided there was so little danger from the objects that they did not bother to radio other ships to warn them, the officials said.
"The concern was that there was a boat in front of them putting these objects in the path of our ships. When they passed, the ships saw that they were floating and light, that they were not heavy or something that would have caused damage," such as a mine, said Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, a spokeswoman for the Navy's Fifth Fleet in the Gulf.
But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, said the incident reflects Iran's shift to small craft that can aggressively menace larger naval vessels. "It's clearly strategically where the Iranian military has gone," Mullen said. The United States has "been concerned for years about the threat of mining those straits."
Although Mullen described last weekend's incident, in which five small Iranian speedboats approached three U.S. warships in the Strait of Hormuz, as the most "provocative and dramatic" encounter he could recall in the area, the Navy announced a few hours later that two other incidents occurred last month in which its ships had close calls with Iranian speedboats. On Dec. 19, the USS Whidbey Island fired warning shots when a single Iranian boat came within 500 yards of it in the strait. On Dec. 22, the USS Carr emitted warning blasts as three Iranian vessels sped close by in the same area, a Navy official said.
Despite five days of questions about the pattern of encounters in the Gulf, this is the first time the Pentagon has mentioned the December events. At a briefing Monday, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff said U.S. and Revolutionary Guard naval units come across each other "regularly."
"For the most part, those interactions are correct. We are familiar with their presence; they're familiar with ours. So, I think in the time I've been here, I've seen things that are a concern, and then there's periods of time -- long periods of time -- where there's not as much going on," Cosgriff told reporters.
Since the incident on Sunday, the United States has emphasized its concern about a new level of Iranian military sophistication. "The incident ought to remind us all just how real is the threat posed by Iran and just how ready we are to meet that threat if it comes to it," Mullen told reporters yesterday.
The Pentagon released the full 36-minute video of the encounter yesterday. Additional close-ups on the footage show the Iranian speedboats zipping around the U.S. warships provocatively. None of the boats appears to have more than a four-man crew, each wearing an orange lifesaving vest. None of the boats appears to have any mounted weapons.
The USS Port Royal, an Aegis cruiser, has a crew of about 360 and carries missile launchers, torpedoes and artillery. The USS Hopper, a guided-missile destroyer, has a crew of about 350 and is armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, torpedoes and artillery. The USS Ingraham, a frigate, has a crew of about 215 and carries torpedoes, artillery and two helicopters. The video shows a U.S. helicopter flying over the Iranian boats.
The Navy is sensitive about small boats because of the 2000 al-Qaeda attack on the USS Cole as it refueled in Yemen, which resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors.
Questions remain about the verbal threat picked up on a common maritime radio channel. Pentagon officials acknowledged that they will probably not be able to determine the origin of the voice that threatened to "explode" an unspecified target, although a forensic examination has begun to try to determine the accent of the speaker and other details.
Middle East experts, Farsi speakers and Iranians in the United States insist that the voice could not have come from Iran. The accent "sounded Pakistani, South Asian or an American trying to sound Iranian, but it definitely didn't sound Iranian," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian-born American at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Defense Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said the controversy over the radio threat missed the point. "If the radio transmission came from elsewhere, it is yet another reason why it is imperative for the Revolutionary Guards to behave in a responsible manner," he said in an interview. "We want to prevent future interactions on the seas from escalating into confrontations based on any misunderstanding."
Also yesterday, Mullen voiced "grave concern" about the al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which he called a base for planning, training and financing worldwide operations. He said that there is a need for "continued pressure" on the region and that U.S. military operations in the tribal areas make "a lot of sense," although Pakistan would have to approve them.
On Afghanistan, Mullen said sending U.S. troops to fight insurgents there would have "a big impact," but he said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has not made a final decision on a proposal to dispatch about 3,000 Marines to train Afghan troops and fight insurgents in southern Afghanistan this spring. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Dan McNeill, was in Washington yesterday to discuss Afghanistan with Gates.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.