WASHINGTON — One day after Iranian and U.S. military vessels threatened each other in the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Iran tried to play down the incident that the U.S. Navy called Iran's most provocative act to date.
Early Sunday, Iranian patrol boats "charged" toward two U.S. frigates and a destroyer and threatened to blow them up. The U.S. warships were about to fire when the Iranian vessels retreated.
The Navy said Monday that it hoped that Iran wouldn't act "so irresponsibly" again. In Tehran, Iran's foreign minister dismissed the incident as almost routine. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he knew of no plans to protest Iran's actions formally.
The incident occurred two days before President Bush travels to the Middle East and Persian Gulf to discuss, among other topics, how countries in the region should deal with Iran and its potential nuclear program.
Iran experts in Washington expressed surprise at the rising tensions, noting that U.S.-Iranian tensions had eased recently. U.S. military leaders in Iraq have said that the flow of Iranian-made explosively formed penetrators, one of the deadliest weapons used against troops, has slackened.
The incident began around 8 a.m. local time Sunday (12 a.m. Sunday EST) when the three U.S. vessels were steaming toward the gulf as part of "standard maritime operations." Five Iranian "fast boats" approached "much more provocatively than usual," said a Pentagon Navy officer, who couldn't be quoted by name because he isn't authorized to speak to the media.
The Iranian boats got within less than 500 yards of the ships, which U.S. naval authorities considered a threat. Over their radios, Navy personnel on the ships heard someone say: "I am coming at you. You will blow up in a couple minutes." But Navy officials cannot say for certain who made the threat because it came over an open radio frequency commonly used in maritime communications.
The Iranians then threw several boxes overboard, each measuring roughly 3 feet on each side, according the U.S. military. The military doesn't know what was in those boxes, but some on the ships feared that they contained mines. The U.S. ships moved away from the boxes and readied to attack the fast boats when the Iranians left.
"The Revolutionary Guard demonstrated their capacity to act irresponsibly and, in my estimation, well out of the ordinary norms of what we would expect," said Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and U.S. 5th Fleet.
But Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini called the incident a case of mistaken identity.
"That is something normal that takes place every now and then for each party, and it is settled after identification of the two parties," he told the state news agency IRNA. It was "similar to past ones" that were resolved "once the two sides recognized each other."
Former CIA and White House official Kenneth Pollack said the incident reopens the question of how much control Iran's central government exerts over the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Pollack, now at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, said the confrontation also was surprising because Iran has signaled recently that it wants to reduce tensions. In particular, U.S officials say, it's stemmed the flow of weapons crossing its border to Iraq.
"If I had to venture a guess, I would say this is elements of the Revolutionary Guard who aren't happy" with the less confrontational approach toward the United States and were attempting to create "facts on the water," he said.
About 20 percent of the world's oil is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, and the markets reacted swiftly to the news. Oil prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose to $97 a barrel Monday morning, shortly after the confrontation became public, before falling back to $94 by midafternoon.