U.S. ALMOST OPENED FIRE ON IRANIAN BOATS, PENTAGON SAYS
By Kim Sengupta
January 8, 2008
The U.S. and Iran have engaged in their most serious military confrontation in recent times, with American warships on the verge of opening fire on gunboats of the Revolutionary Guards which had threatened to blow them up.
The incident, details of which were confirmed by the Pentagon yesterday, came on the eve of President George Bush's visit to the Middle East and follows claims by U.S. commanders in the Persian Gulf that Iran was trying to destablize the region.
The three U.S. ships and five Iranian vessels clashed in the early hours of Sunday in the Strait of Hormuz, the stretch of water where a 15-strong British naval party was taken hostage by the Revolutionary Guards last year. American officials at the time said that a similar attempt to seize their personnel would have led to immediate retaliation.
The Pentagon claimed the American ships were in international waters, although the demarcation of the border between Iran and Iraq on the Strait remains a matter of dispute. An American official said that the Revolutionary Guards boats "swarmed" to within 200 metres of the USS Port Royal, destroyer USS Hopper and frigate USS Ingraham and the Iranians transmitted a radio message saying: "I am coming at you; you will explode in a couple of minutes."
The captain of one of the U.S. vessels was "literally moments away" from giving the order to open fire when the Iranian vessels moved away, American officials said. The Iranian boats were observed before the stand-off, dropping "small white containers" into the water, the Americans said, an exercise for laying mines.
"It is the most serious provocation of this sort that we've seen yet," a Pentagon spokesman said. "There were no injuries, but there could have been." The White House has warned Tehran that such "hostile action" will not be tolerated.
The U.S. State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said: "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. There is wide support for that within the region."
In Tehran, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hossein, confirming that there had been a confrontation, added: "The example that happened at the weekend was similar to previous cases and is an ordinary and natural issue."
Tensions between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear program continue, and both the Americans and the British have repeatedly charged the Iranians with supplying explosives which have been used to kill coalition troops in Iraq.
In October, the U.S. accused the Revolutionary Guards of trying to obtain chemical and biological weapons and its Quds force of supporting terrorism. The following month, the U.S. military claimed that the Revolutionary Guards have taken over operations in the Gulf from the Iranian navy.
One aim of President Bush's visit to the region is expected to be to reassure Gulf states nervous about Tehran's intentions of continuing U.S. support. American officials have noticeably ratcheted up their rhetoric about Iran. At a security conference in Manama, Bahrain, last month, Admiral William J. Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command, said: "Their behavior has really been a problem . . . to the extent it destablizes the region, which it does."
Vice-Admiral Kevin J Cosgriff added that the main concern was Iran's "threat to attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz to normal merchant marine traffic . . . mines, coastal cruise missiles, tactical aviation, submarines and ships could be used to close the waterway." An American-led multinational naval force of 45 vessels, including British ships, patrols the Gulf.
More than 45 per cent of the world's oil trade flows through the Strait. After revelations about the confrontation between the Iranians and the Americans, the price of crude jumped 49 cents to $98.40 a barrel before slipping back later.
*Although only 34 miles wide at its narrowest point, the channel between Oman and Iran is of massive strategic importance, providing a crucial import and export route for world energy supplies.
More than 20 per cent of the world's total oil supply passes through the strait, with tankers carrying the liquid riches of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states on to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
If the Strait of Hormuz was blocked, only a small fraction of the 17 million barrels of crude that travel along it every day would be able to pass along alternative routes. Iran has threatened to impede trade through the waterway if attacked, which would lead to a massive rise in energy prices.
Ownership of the region's waterways is disputed, particularly near the southern borders of Iraq and Iran, and hostile military action is not unheard of: last March, Iran seized Royal Navy personnel accused of trespass in Iranian waters. The channel is also used to transport heavy armor and military supplies to Iraq and other Gulf states.
U.S. WARNING TO IRAN AFTER THREAT TO WARSHIPS IN GULF
By Michael Theodoulou
January 8, 2008
The White House issued a warning to Iran last night after dramatic reports that Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats threatened U.S. warships in Strait of Hormuz on the eve of George Bush's tour of the Middle East.
The Iranians had radioed the American vessels warning an attack was imminent, a Pentagon official said.
"I'm coming at you and will blow you up in a couple of minutes," he quoted the radio transmission as saying.
American forces were on the on the verge of firing in self-defense when the five Iranian boats, which came within 200 meters of USS Port Royal, a navy cruiser, a destroyer, and a frigate, turned and sped off, dropping unidentified objects in the water as they left, the officials said.
"It is the most serious provocation of this sort that we've seen yet," one said.
Reports of the 20-minute incident, which took place in international waters early on Sunday morning, emerged as President Bush prepared to leave for a six-day visit to the Middle East today.
"We urge the Iranians to refrain from such provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous situation in the future," Gordon Johndroe, the National Security Council spokesman, said.
The Pentagon described the Iranian actions as "careless, reckless, and potentially hostile." Bryan Whitman, a spokesman, said: "This is clearly something that deserves an explanation."
But Tehran promptly played down the confrontation. "This is an ordinary occurrence which happens every now and then for both sides," Mohammad Ali Hosseini, the foreign ministry spokesman, said.
The incident surprised many Iran experts who said both Washington and Tehran had made recent efforts to "de-escalate" their confrontation.
One sceptical analyst said: "Have you ever heard of a suicide bomber saying 'hey, I'm going to blow myself up right now?'"
Washington will want to determine whether the action was the result of overzealous Revolutionary Guards acting on their own or whether it was an intended provocation planned in Tehran.
The second scenario would suggest Tehran was underlining its opposition to Mr. Bush's visit.
His rare trip to the region is aimed at bolstering Arab support against Iran's nuclear program as well as shoring up troubled peace moves between the Israelis and Palestinians. The narrow Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf is one of the world's most sensitive strategic locations, with at least a fifth of the world's crude oil supply passing through it.
Iranian commanders have repeatedly warned that if their country is attacked by the U.S., blocking the Strait's narrow choke-point to the Persian Gulf would be one of several means of retaliation. Oil prices rose some 30 cents to more than $98 a barrel after news of the incident before slipping back.
Iranian analysts urged caution, saying there had been public attempts by Tehran and Washington recently to ease tensions. The U.S. military had also misread Iranian radio communications in the past, most notably in 1988 when the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 passengers and crew.
"I'd take this with a very large grain of salt until we get more details . . . who knows, this could be a turning point or it could be an isolated incident with no significance at all," Professor Gary Sick, an Iran specialist at University of Columbia, New York, said.
"This is contrary to all the positive signals we've seen in recent weeks from both sides. This strikes me really as an aberration," Prof Sick, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, told the *Scotsman*.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, last week said that relations with the U.S. could be restored. Some believe he was sending a message to U.S. presidential candidates.
HARDWARE LINED UP ON NEW FRONT LINE
The largest of the American vessels involved in the confrontation with the Iranian boats was the USS Port Royal, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser.
The Port Royal is an extremely advanced ship, carrying the Aegis weapon control and radar system.
It was accompanied by the USS Hopper, a guided missile destroyer, another modern, advanced warship.
Both vessels carry a variety of missiles, including sea-to-air and surface to surface weapons. The Port Royal can also fire long-range cruise missiles.
The more lightly armed frigate USS Ingraham was the third vessel of the group. It is unclear exactly what vessels the Iranians used, but the fast attack craft of the variety that seized the 15 British sailors last year seems likely.
Iran has in the past claimed to be in possession of powerful Russian-designed Sunburn supersonic anti-ship missiles with which it could hit any vessel -- military or civilian -- passing through the straits.
The Sunburn missiles are extremely fast and give the defending vessel a maximum theoretical response time of only 25-30 seconds.
IRAN PLAYS DOWN GULF INCIDENT WITH U.S.
By Ali Akbar Dareini
January 8, 2007
TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's Foreign Ministry said Monday that a confrontation between Iranian boats and U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf over the weekend was "something normal" and was resolved. It suggested the Iranian boats had not recognized the U.S. vessels.
The Pentagon said that in the incident early Sunday, five small Iranian boats repeatedly "charged" U.S. warships in the Gulf's Hormuz Strait and dropped boxes in the water. The boats warned the U.S. ships that they would set up "explosions," a U.S. Defense Department official said.
The U.S. craft were on the verge of opening fire when the Iranian boats fled, the official said, calling the incident "the most serious provocation of its sort" in the Gulf. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
But Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini played down the incident, suggesting it was an issue of mistaken identity. He did not comment on the U.S. 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."
U.S. Navy and Iranian officials have said in the past that vessels from the two rival nations frequently come into contact in the waters of the narrow, heavily trafficked Gulf. They often communicate by radio to avoid incidents.
But the latest incident was the first time U.S. officials have spoken of such a direct threat from Iranian boats.
The incident occurred at about 5 a.m. 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 U.S. ships, dropping boxes in the water in front of the ships and forcing the U.S. ships to take evasive maneuvers, the Pentagon official said.
There were no injuries but the official said there could have been, because the Iranian boats turned away "literally at the very moment that U.S. forces were preparing to open fire" in self defense.
The official said he didn't have the precise transcript of communications that passed between the two forces, but said the Iranians radioed something like "we're coming at you and you'll explode in a couple minutes."