A game of chicken in the Persian
Gulf By David Isenberg
WASHINGTON - Was it "harassment",
"confrontation", "a needless provocation", a game
of nautical chicken, or much ado about nothing?
More than three days after the Pentagon accused
Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) boats of
harassing US Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz
early on Sunday morning, it is still not clear
what exactly happened.
reports, five Iranian speedboats charged US ships
and radioed threats that they were about to
withdrew as the US ships
prepared to fire on them.
the US ships were said to have received radio
communications thought to be from one of the
Iranian boats in which they heard an individual
say in English, "I am coming at you. You will
explode in a couple of minutes." But a US Navy
official said it was impossible to determine if
the radio transmission actually came from one of
the five boats.
The Iranian Foreign
Ministry called the incident "ordinary" and denied
the use of threatening language.
by speedboats would have been quite an act of
daring, considering the nature of the American
The guided missile cruiser USS Port Royal
(whose weapons include six MK-46 torpedoes, two
MK-45 five-inch/54 caliber lightweight guns, and
two Phalanx close-in-weapons systems).
The guided missile destroyer USS Hopper
(whose weapons include six MK-46 torpedoes, one
five-inch gun, and two Phalanx close-in-weapons
The guided missile frigate USS Ingraham
(whose weapons include one three-inch/62 caliber
gun, six MK-46 torpedoes, one Phalanx close-in
weapons system and machine
According to the Center
for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington, the IRGC naval forces have at least 40
light patrol boats and 10 Houdong guided missile
patrol boats armed with C-802 anti-ship missiles.
Which type of boat approached the American ships
has not yet been established.
Though in a
Monday video-conference briefing given by Vice
Admiral Kevin J Cosgriff, commander of US Naval
Forces Central Command, from his headquarters in
Bahrain, there was this exchange:
Bloomberg News: A lot
of people are going to wonder why was the US
Navy afraid of five small speed boats when the
vessels encountered were fairly large and
well-equipped. Can you give the public a sense
of the potential damage these vessels, these
small vessels, could have caused. Did they have
any anti-ship missiles on them, for instance, or
Cosgriff: Neither anti-ship missiles nor
torpedoes, and I wouldn't characterize the
posture of the US 5th Fleet as afraid of these
ships or these three US ships afraid of these
small boats. Our ships were making a normal
transit of the Strait of Hormuz. They followed
the procedures they've been trained to follow to
increase their own readiness in the face of
events like this, and as the Iranian behavior
continued during this interaction, our ships
stepped through there, increased readiness, the
pace. And I didn't get the sense from the
reports I was receiving that there was a sense
of being afraid of these five boats.
According to Cosgriff, the Iranian
boats broke into two groups and "maneuvered
aggressively" on both sides of the US ships,
coming as close as 500 meters.
radio transmission, at least one of the Iranian
boats dropped "white box-like objects",
potentially considered floating mines, into the
water. The US ships responded with evasive
maneuvers, radioed warnings to the Iranians and
sounded ships' whistles, while ordering increased
readiness of their own vessels. After their
messages were not heeded, the US ships prepared to
fire in self-defense, but the Iranians abruptly
turned and sped north toward their territorial
According to the timeline provided
by the US, at 7:45am the Iranians head towards the
US ships. Two Iranian boats make a direct run at
the USS Hopper, the lead ship, coming within 200
meters; 7:47am, a threatening radio transmission
is received saying, "I am coming at you, you will
explode in a couple of minutes"; 7:49am, the
Iranians drop white boxes in the water. The US
doesn't know if they contain explosives; 7:50, the
Hopper's captain orders a machine gun to be turned
on the Iranians. At that point, the Iranians turn
around and leave. The senior US admiral in the
region says there have been encounters with the
Iranians in the past.
Cosgriff said the
incident lasted less than 30 minutes, ending when
the speedboats turned and headed back to Iranian
waters. He said the US ships were at least 22
kilometers miles from the nearest Iranian land,
and thus outside its 17-kilometer territorial
limit in international waters. The US ships were
clearly marked, it was daylight and there was
decent visibility, he said.
But a careful
reading of Monday's briefing with Cosgriff
suggests the situation may not have been as
dangerous as suggested. He did not claim, for
example, that that the Iranian vessels were
violating international rules of the sea, nor was
there any factual support to the statement that
they maneuvered aggressively in the direction of
the US ships.
What he did say was that
"the behavior of the Iranian ships was, in my
estimation, unnecessary, without due regard for
safety of navigation and unduly provocative".
He also said, "So yes, it's more serious
than we have seen, but to put it in context, we do
interact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and
their navy regularly. For the most part, those
interactions are correct. We are familiar with
their presence, they're familiar with ours. So I
think in the time I've been here I've seen things
that are a concern, and then there's periods of
time - long periods of time - where there's not as
much going on."
Nor did he explain why the
news of the "confrontation" originally came from
outside the Pentagon.
Nevertheless, the US
has treated it as a serious incident. US Defense
Secretary Robert Gates said the incident was
"quite troubling actually and a matter of real
concern". Cosgriff said, "These are in my mind
find it more than a coincidence that the day after
President George W Bush promised in an interview
on Israeli television that he will defend Israel
against an Iranian strike, just ahead of his visit
there, that there is a highly publicized
near-battle in the Persian Gulf between three US
Navy ships and five Iranian IRGC boats.
But others note that there are forces
within Iran which oppose improved US-Iranian
relations and suggest that an Iranian hardliner
might be willing to risk a military showdown with
the United States to prevent that.
is history to support that view. On several
occasions in 2004-5, the British Embassy in Tehran
complained to the Iranian government about
dangerous maneuvers by Iranian fast boats near
coalition naval vessels.
Yet the truth is,
the Persian Gulf has long been a source of
potential or actual military conflicts.
During the US Navy's escort of reflagged
Kuwaiti tankers (Operation Earnest Will) in the
1980s, there were numerous occasions of Iranian
maritime provocations such as attacks on unarmed
merchant ships and deployment of floating sea
mines in shipping channels in international
waters. It was Iranian mine-laying that resulted
in strikes against the USS Samuel B Roberts, which
almost resulted in the loss of the ship.
On May 17, 1987, the USS Stark was stuck
by two Exocet antiship missiles fired from an
Iraqi Mirage F1 fighter during the Iran-Iraq War.
In October 1987, after the Iranians were
discovered dropping mines in international water
to disrupt shipping in the Gulf, the US Navy
attacked and destroyed a couple IRGC outposts in
the lower gulf.
On July 3, 1988, the USS
Vincennes shot down a civilian Iranian Airbus near
Bandar Abbas. Subsequently, some analysts blamed
US military commanders and the captain of the
Vincennes for reckless and aggressive behavior in
a tense and dangerous environment.
incident that is on many people's minds, and which
fuels suspicion about Iranian intentions, is what
actually happened in the incident last March in
which Iranian naval vessels captured 15 British
Royal Navy sailors and marines and held them for
nearly two weeks before releasing them.
During his briefing, Cosgriff noted that
while the US Navy has had routine encounters with
Iranian ships in the region, both regular Iranian
navy ships and those belonging to the IRGC, most
exchanges are proper and without incident.
David Isenberg is a an analyst
in national and international security affairs,
[email protected] He is also a member of the
Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an
adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute,
contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project,
a research fellow at the Independent Institute,
and a US Navy veteran. The views expressed are his