TEHRAN (AFP) — Iran on Tuesday rejected US charges that its naval forces threatened to blow up American ships in the Strait of Hormuz, amid renewed tensions ahead of US President George W. Bush’s visit to the region.
US defence officials said five speedboats from the naval forces of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards menaced three US warships in the strategic waterway on Sunday, radioing a threat to blow them up.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the incident as “provocative” and “dangerous”, amid fears such an insolated encounter could spark a major confrontation between the two foes.
But Iranian officials expressed bewilderment over the US version of events, saying the encounter was a routine question of identification that ended with nothing special to report.
“What happened between the Guards and foreign vessels was an ordinary identification,” Ali Reza Tangsiri, commander of the Guards naval forces in the region, told the Mehr news agency.
“No special engagement took place between the Guards and the foreign side,” he said, adding that the Guards naval forces had a right to control and identify “any vessel entering Persian Gulf waters” to the northwest.
State television quoted an unnamed Guards source in the region as saying: “No threatening message was transmitted.”
A US Defence Department official had quoted the Iranian radio transmission as saying: “I’m coming at you and you will blow up in a couple of minutes.”
Crew aboard two of the five speedboats also dumped floating boxes into the path of one of the vessels during the encounter, but it passed them without any shots being fired, US officials said.
“It was provocative, and that kind of provocation is dangerous. I would sincerely hope that the Iranians would refrain from any such activity,” Rice told the BBC’s Arabic service in an interview.
The incident came just days ahead of Bush’s departure on Tuesday for a crucial trip to the Middle East, a visit that Iran has already slammed as unnecessary meddling in the region
He aims to boost the Israeli-Palestinian peace process but will also reiterate to US allies in the region that Washington continues to view Iran as a threat.
Iranian media and analysts, expressing suspicion over the US version of events, described it as a propaganda stunt to tarnish Iran ahead of Bush’s talks.
“This action is routine and it is quite normal for ships to ask other ships to identify themselves. But because of Bush’s visit to the region the incident took on a particular scale,” said conservative analyst Amir Mohebian.
The conservative Fars news agency accused Western and Arab media in an editorial of blindly following a US “propaganda campaign against Iran.”
“Ahead of the visit by Bush, we must expect other propaganda actions against Iran and its allies in the region,” it said.
The Strait of Hormuz is a vital conduit for energy supplies, with about 20-25 percent of the world’s crude oil supplies passing through from Gulf oil producers.
It was Iranian Revolutionary Guards who in March last year seized 15 British sailors and marines in Gulf waters and held them at a secret location before releasing them in Tehran two weeks later.
Britain insisted that its personnel — including one woman — were on a routine anti-smuggling patrol in Iraqi waters under a UN mandate, but Iran said they were captured because they had strayed into its territorial waters.
Tehran and Washington have had no diplomatic links since 1980 when the United States cut relations amid a siege of the US embassy in Tehran by Islamist students that lasted 444 days.
Exchanges since then have been marked by acrimony and suspicion, with Washington accusing Tehran of interfering in Iraq, human rights abuses and defying the world with its nuclear programme.