( The New York Times ) - Five armed Iranian speedboats approached three United States Navy warships in international waters in the strategic Strait of Hormuz on Sunday, then maneuvered aggressively as radio threats were issued that the American ships would be blown up, military officials said Monday.
The confrontation, which ended after just under 30 minutes without damage, shots fired or any injuries, took place during daylight on Sunday as the three American ships were entering the Persian Gulf.
On Monday, the senior Navy officer in the region, Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff, criticized the Iranian actions as "unnecessarily provocative." Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Iranians had acted in a "reckless and dangerous" manner.
Iranian officials played down the significance of the encounter. "This is an ordinary occurrence, which happens every now and then for both sides," said Muhammad Ali Hosseini, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, as quoted by the state-run news agency IRNA.
But several Pentagon officials said the commander of a Navy destroyer involved in the episode had been on the verge of issuing an order to fire on one of the small, high-speed boats sailing near the American naval convoy.
The commander of the Hopper, a guided-missile destroyer, was "very close to giving the order to fire," said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for attribution. "We were perilously close to an incident where we would have taken out at least one of the Iranian small boats."
The Hopper had trained an M240 machine gun - which fires upward of 10 armor-piercing slugs per second - on one of the Iranian boats that had pulled to within 200 yards of the American vessel, well within the gun's range, Pentagon officials said. But before the order to fire was issued, the Iranian boat suddenly steered away from the Hopper.
The United States has conducted major war games to prepare for just the kind of event that unfolded over the weekend, because Navy officers have expressed concerns that the weaker Iranian fleet might choose to confront American warships by "swarming" with larger numbers of smaller craft.
Admiral Cosgriff, commander of the Fifth Fleet, said the episode was "more serious than we have seen," in particular because it occurred in an important maritime choke point vital to the global economy.
"I am concerned with what I consider unnecessary and irresponsible maneuvering and behavior like this on the part of those patrol boats in, again, international waters in an area that's traversed by numerous ships of all nations peacefully day in and day out," he said during a video news conference from his headquarters in Bahrain.
In addition to the Hopper, the American ships involved in the episode were the cruiser Port Royal and the Ingraham, a frigate.
Commanders and crews sailing in the region are especially mindful of the damage small craft can inflict on American warships. In October 2000, 17 American sailors died when a small boat was detonated next to the destroyer Cole while it was docked for refueling in Yemen.
This is a time of considerable tensions between the countries, as President Bush is to visit the region for a weeklong tour aimed both at encouraging Middle East talks and at conveying a message that Iran continues to pose a serious threat.
Defense Department and military officials said that as the Iranian boats neared the American vessels, a radio threat was issued that the American ships would explode. The verbal warnings broadcast over the internationally recognized bridge-to-bridge radio channel said, "I am coming at you, and you will explode in a few minutes," an American official said.
Two of the Iranian boats also dropped boxes in the path of the final American ship in the maritime convoy. The boxes could have been mines or simply dummy boxes meant to test - and learn from - the reaction, officials said.
Defense Department officials said the five speedboats belonged to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Traditionally, the Revolutionary Guards maritime forces have operated in a far more hostile manner than the regular Iranian Navy. In addition, the United States Government describes the Revolutionary Guards as being involved with unconventional weapons and its most elite organization, the Quds Force, as a supporter of terrorism.
In Tehran on Monday, the news agency FARS, which is close to the Revolutionary Guards, wrote in an analysis that the accusations were baseless and aimed at depicting Iran as a threat ahead of Mr. Bush's trip to the region.
The White House warned Iran against any further confrontations. "We urge the Iranians to refrain from such provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous incident in the future," said Gordon D. Johndroe, a White House spokesman.
Admiral Cosgriff said that, in the past, relations with the regular Iranian Navy had been courteous and professional, and that many interactions at sea with the Revolutionary Guards vessels have been normal.
But the allied navies operating in the region have been especially watchful since last March, when sailors believed to be from the Revolutionary Guards captured 15 British sailors in waters the British insisted were international, and held them for nearly two weeks.
The Pentagon said last year that there were signs that Iran had turned command of its naval missions in the Persian Gulf over to the Revolutionary Guards Corps' maritime forces, stripping Iran's regular navy of that responsibility.