Small Iranian fast boats swarmed around massive U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, and a man speaking heavily accented English threatened, “I am coming to you. ... You will explode,” according to a video released Tuesday by the Pentagon.
The Iranian boats appeared to ignore repeated warnings from the U.S. ships, including horn blasts and radio transmissions, as the ships moved through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf.
In a four-minute, 20-second video, shot from the bridge of the destroyer USS Hopper, the small boats — including a bright blue one — can be seen racing near the wake the U.S. ships and crossing close to each other.
From the Hopper’s bridge, after spotting the approaching Iranian boats, a Navy crew member says over the radio: “This is coalition warship. I am engaged in transit passage in accordance with international law. I intend no harm. Over.”
Often uneven and shaky, the video condenses what Navy officials have said was a 20-minute or so clash early Sunday between three Navy warships and five Iranian fast boats. It ends with a blank screen, as only the audio of the Navy’s final warning can be heard, just after the voice warns that they are coming.
“Inbound small craft: You are approaching a coalition warship operating in international waters. Your identity is not known; your intentions are unclear,” the unidentified Navy crew member says. He then cautions the Iranians that if they do not steer clear they will be “subject to defensive measures.”
“Request that you alter course immediately to remain clear,” the crew member says.
After a pause, the man with the accent issues a final threat: “You will explode after (indecipherable) minutes.”
A Navy crew member then repeated the threat as he heard it: “He says, ‘You will explode after a few minutes.”’ At that point the tape ends.
'Dangerous,' Bush says
President Bush on Tuesday denounced the incident as a “provocative act.”
“It is a dangerous situation,” Bush said during a White House news conference. “They should not have done it, pure and simple. ... I don’t know what their thinking was, but I’m telling you what my thinking was. I think it was a provocative act.”
The audio and video recordings were made separately but were pulled together by the Navy. Internal U.S. Navy transmissions can also be heard on the tape. The Hopper was in the lead, followed by the cruiser USS Port Royal and the frigate USS Ingraham.
The top Navy commander in the gulf said the Iranian fleet of high-speed boats charged at and threatened to blow up the Navy convoy as it passed near but outside Iranian waters on Sunday. The Iranian fleet “maneuvered aggressively” and then fled as the American ship commanders were preparing to open fire, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff said. No shots were fired.
In Tehran, Iran’s Foreign Ministry suggested that the Iranian boats had not recognized the U.S. vessels. Spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini played down the incident. “That is something normal that takes place every now and then for each party,” he told the state news agency IRNA.
Cosgriff disputed Iranian claims that the incident was a routine encounter, saying Iran’s “provocative” actions were “deadly serious” to the U.S. military.
The confrontation was an unusual flare-up of U.S.-Iranian tensions in the Persian Gulf as Bush prepared for an eight-day Mideast trip designed in part to counter Iran’s influence in the region. He is expected to discuss the U.S. posture toward Tehran with Arab allies also worried about Tehran’s desire for greater regional power.
Many Arab countries fear the Iranian-American rivalry could erupt into a military confrontation that would put them in the crossfire and hurt vital oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said that its high-speed boats never threatened the U.S. vessels during the encounter, insisting it only asked them to identify themselves, then let them continue into the gulf. A Guards commander defended his force’s right to identify ships in the sensitive waterway.
Cosgriff, the commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, which patrols the gulf and is based in nearby Bahrain, said the American vessels had been identified by Iranian authorities earlier in the day.
“The group had been successfully queried by an Iranian ship, possibly a Revolutionary Guards ship, and two or three Iranian (shore) stations and an Omani station,” Cosgriff told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday.
The U.S. commander also said that the American ships were clearly marked and the incident took place during the day when they could be seen. “I can’t help but conclude that it was provocative,” Cosgriff said.
The Pentagon has said the U.S. ships were on the verge of opening fire on the Iranian boats when they fled.
Cosgriff said the five Iranian boats were outfitted with outboard motors and carrying three to four people each.
Two of the Iranian boats went to the ship’s left side, three to the right, he said. The two on the left “were more energetic and made a number of runs toward the lead ship, the USS Hopper.” The two boats dumped boxes into the water.
U.S. military officials, including Cosgriff, cautioned, however, that they have not been able to connect definitively the radio call with one of the Revolutionary Guards boats.
“The ships were close enough to shore that the call could have come from a shore station, it could have come from another boat,” said Cdr. Lydia Robertson, the 5th Fleet spokeswoman. “But the call did happen while the small boats were there.”
Senior Revolutionary Guards commander Ali Reza Tangsiri said Iran had the right to ask any ships to identify themselves upon entering or leaving the Persian Gulf.
“It is a basic responsibility of patrolling units of the Revolutionary Guards to take necessary interception measures toward any vessels entering into the waters of the Persian Gulf,” Tangsiri said, according to the Mehr news agency.
Cosgriff objected to Iranian attempts to downplay the incident.
“I hope from this lesson they realize that we are concerned by small, high-speed vessels,” said Cosgriff. “I hope they understand we will take those actions we deem appropriate to defend our ships and our sailors.”
Riad Kahwaji, a Dubai-based analyst with the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said Iran may have been seeking to send a “political message” to Arab gulf states to highlight the dangers of military confrontation.
“When somebody gets so close to a big ship then he’s very likely asking for trouble or trying to provoke something,” he said. “Opening fire means sparking a war. ... Does anyone really want to take that risk?”