The Jan. 7 report from the Pentagon about Iranian fast boats allegedly provoking U.S. Navy vessels into a near clash in the Strait of Hormuz contains several oddities. The main question is why the United States chose to spin up the issue so much.
There are a number of oddities surrounding the Jan. 7 Pentagon report that Iranian fast boats provoked U.S. navy vessels into a near clash in the Strait of Hormuz.
According to the U.S. Fifth Fleet of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, around 8 a.m. local time Jan. 6, Navy cruiser USS Port Royal, destroyer USS Hopper and frigate USS Ingraham were transiting the strait on their way into the Gulf on a routine mission when five small fast boats — probably fast-moving gun or missile boats suspected of being manned by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy IRGCN— confronted the U.S. ships and engaged in aggressive behavior.
Unnamed U.S. military officials said the Iranian boats charged the U.S. ships and dropped white boxes in the water in front of one the USS Hopper. Radio communication between the U.S. and Iranian vessels were exchanged during the incident, with one message from the Iranians purportedly stating, “We’re coming at you and you’ll explode in a couple minutes.” The U.S. surface combatants in all likelihood already had the authority based on standing rules of engagement to fire at the Iranian boats in self defense, but the Iranian boats sped away before any shots were fired.
If the Iranian gunboats had indeed made it within 200 yards, as reports claim, the U.S. vessels were in an extremely troubling position. The strait’s tight waters would give the U.S. warships less warning and less room for maneuver than they would have in open water, especially since the five boats reportedly split and maneuvered to both sides of the U.S. warships. Well before that distance, standing US Navy rules of engagement probably authorized the use of deadly force. Four 5” guns and probably a dozen .50 caliber heavy machine guns were in a position to engage these ships.
A U.S. ship captain, confronted with a threat to his ship, is authorized at all times — and obligated — to act to protect it. In this case, no such action took place. This means that the rules of engagement suspended this standing order, that the commanders of the ships involved failed to act in accordance to standing orders or that the incident never rose to the level of threat (the final scenario is the most likely).
Iranian officials are now clearly downplaying the incident, with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali Hosseini telling Iran’s Press TV that it was a common incident. Hosseini said what happened is not unprecedented and that the matter has been settled. There is no mention of the white boxes or the threatening radio messages in any of the Iranian official statements thus far or in the official CENTCOM press release. Even the idea of Iran sending radio messages to warn of an impending explosion makes little sense.
The main question, then, is why the United States chose to spin up the issue to such a great extent. The numerous leaks to the media by unnamed U.S. military officials made out the incident to be a major provocation that would undoubtedly lead to a U.S. response.
Back-channel talks between Iran and the United States to defuse the situation already appear to be under way. The White House seems to be backing off from the incident, with U.S. State Department spokesman stating that the United States would probably not lodge a formal complaint against Iran over the incident. The apparent U.S. intent to increase tensions with Iran is still unclear, but it is possible that Washington was trying to send a strong hint to Tehran that it can reintroduce the element of military aggression into its negotiations with Iran if the talks are not put back on track in the near future. U.S. President George W. Bush is heading to the Mideast region Jan. 8, and is expecting to make this visit a productive one. The reports surrounding this peculiar incident in the Strait of Hormuz could have been the jumpstart to negotiations that Washington was seeking.
Monday, January 07, 2008