WASHINGTON, (AP) – In what U.S. officials called a serious provocation, Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats harassed and provoked three U.S. Navy ships in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, threatening to explode the American vessels.
U.S. forces were on the verge of firing on the Iranian boats in the early Sunday incident, when the boats turned and moved away, a Pentagon official said. “It is the most serious provocation of this sort that we’ve seen yet,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said: “We urge the Iranians to refrain from such provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous incident in the future.”
The incident occurred at about 5 a.m. local time Sunday as a U.S. Navy cruiser, destroyer and frigate 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.”
Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment Monday, and there was no news of the incident on Iranian state-run media.
Historical tensions between the two nations have increased in recent years over Washington’s charge that Tehran has been developing nuclear weapons and supplying and training Iraqi insurgents using roadside bombs — the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.
In another incident off its coast, Iranian Revolutionary Guard sailors last March captured 15 British sailors and held them for nearly two weeks.
The 15 sailors from HMS Cornwall, including one woman, were captured on March 23. Iran claims the crew, operating in a small patrol craft, had intruded into Iranian waters — a claim denied by Britain.
This weekend’s incident comes as President Bush’s first major trip to the Middle East is approaching. While scheduled to meet the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other regional nations Jan. 9-16, Bush is expected to try to bolster the troubled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians but is also likely to seek backing for U.S. concerns about Iran.
Iran is under two sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for its refusal to freeze uranium enrichment, a potential pathway to nuclear arms, and Washington is pushing for additional U.N. penalties. But a recent U.S. intelligence assessment that it probably shut down a clandestine weapons program three years ago have led to increased resistance to such a move from permanent Security Council members Russia and China, which have strategic and trade ties with Tehran.
At about this time last year, Bush announced he was sending a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf region in a show of force against Iran.
The U.S. Navy quietly scaled back to one carrier group several months later. But while the two were there, they staged two major exercises off Iran’s coast.
The war games amounted to U.S. muscle-flexing at a time when Tehran increasingly was at loggerheads with the international community over its disputed nuclear program and threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz for oil transports in case of a U.S. military strike on Iran.
Since then, there have been diplomatic overtures aimed at calming tensions. A May 28 meeting concerning security in Iraq between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, broke a 27-year diplomatic freeze between the two countries.
A planned Dec. 18 meeting between Iranian and American security, military and diplomatic experts was canceled a few days before it was to be held. At the time, Iranian officials said it was a scheduling problem while U.S. officials referred questions to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry.
And in the past month or so, U.S. officials have said Tehran appears to have slowed or halted the flow of illegal weapons across the frontier between Iran and Iraq. Iran has denied the arms smuggling accusations, insisting that it is doing its best to help stabilize its embattled western neighbor.
Iranians recently were reported to be upset that although they contributed to the improving security situation in Iraq, U.S. officials have not done enough to acknowledge it.
The United States maintains nearly 40,000 troops in Gulf countries other than Iraq, with the largest group in Kuwait and others in Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia.