Commentary

A Game of Chicken in the Persian Gulf

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Asia Times online on January 9, 2008.

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.

According to reports, five Iranian speedboats charged US ships and radioed threats that they were about to explode, then withdrew as the US ships prepared to fire on them.

Commanders of 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.

An attack by speedboats would have been quite an act of daring, considering the nature of the American ships.

  • 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 systems).
  • 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 guns).

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 torpedoes?

Admiral 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.

After the 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 waters.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry called the incident “ordinary” and denied the use of threatening language.”

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 unnecessarily provocative.”

Some observers 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.

There 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 struck 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.

One 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 member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, and a US Navy veteran.