The commander of U.S. and coalition naval forces in the Persian Gulf is rejecting Iran's claim that five of its small speed boats approached three U.S. Navy ships Sunday morning in a case of mistaken identity. The commander says the Iranian ships took aggressive action and were close to being fired on. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Speaking via satellite from his base in Bahrain, Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff said he disagrees with an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, who said on Monday the Iranian boats were involved in "normal" operations and were trying to identify the American ships.
"The U.S. ships were clearly marked, daylight, decent visibility," he said. "The behavior of the Iranian ships was, in my estimation, unnecessary, without due regard for the safety of navigation, and unduly provocative."
Admiral Cosgriff says the American ships had routinely identified themselves to an Iranian Navy ship and shore station not long before the five small boats, apparently operated by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, moved in at high speed.
He says the Americans were about five kilometers outside Iranian territorial waters near where the Strait of Hormuz opens into the Persian Gulf.
The admiral says the Iranian boats maneuvered on both sides of the American ships, and one Iranian boat dropped some boxes into the water directly in the path of one American vessels, threatening by radio that the ship would explode.
"When they act that way, it raises the possibility of a miscalculation on their part that somebody might take it just too far," he said.
Admiral Cosgriff says the American ships prepared to take action, and contacted the Iranians by radio to warn them to stop their aggressive moves.
"As I've told my commanding officers, I take this incredibly seriously, and I expect the commanding officers will successfully defend their ships and their crews at all times in this theater," he said. "It's important to remember we have been attacked by small high-speed boats. We take the potential for a small craft to inflict damage against a larger ship seriously, and we would be irresponsible if we didn't."
Admiral Cosgriff acknowledged that one of the ship commanders was going through procedures that could have resulted in his gunners firing on one or more of the Iranian boats, but the Iranians turned and left the area. The U.S. ships avoided the boxes in the water and continued into the Gulf to join the large coalition task force there.
The White House called the Iranian actions "provocative," and said such potentially dangerous activity should stop.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the incident "quite troubling and a matter of real concern." According to a Defense Department transcript, during a visit to California the secretary said if Iran acts "aggressively" it can create "very dangerous" circumstances. In the transcript, Secretary Gates calls the incident "a reminder that there is a very unpredictable government in Tehran," and he calls on that government to "disavow" the incident and promise such things will not happen again. The secretary reports there were two or three similar but less dramatic incidents last year.
At the Pentagon, Spokesman Bryan Whitman had a similar comment.
"This is a serious incident, certainly careless, reckless and potentially hostile maneuvering activity," said Whitman. "I don't know what their intent was. Clearly, this is something that deserves an explanation, and it is an activity that should immediately be refrained from."
Whitman says the Defense Department will work with other U.S. government agencies to seek an explanation from Iran.
At the State Department Monday, spokesman Sean McCormack said "the United States will confront Iranian behavior" when it is potentially harmful, and that there is "wide support" for that policy in the region. McCormack said the United States wants to encourage reasonable elements in the Iranian government to move the country toward a more constructive role in international affairs.
The Iranian boats used in Sunday's incident are usually operated by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Force, which is outside the regular military chain of command and often takes a more confrontational approach toward the United States and its allies. The boats are generally armed with machine guns. U.S. Officials say there have been similar, but generally less serious, incidents with Revolutionary Guard boats in the past, but the Iranian Navy does not engage in such activity.