U.S. – Iranian relations almost took a turn for the worse this weekend, as five Iranian speedboats harassed three American ships cruising in the international waters of the Strait of Hormuz, almost provoking one American destroyer to fire.
According to The New York Times, Iran played down the incident, but the situation came very close to armed confrontation.
“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.”
Before the order to fire could be given, the Iranian vessel turned away from the American destroyer.
The Guardian reports that the incident began when five Iranian speedboats steered in front of the American ships, dropping boxes in their path, which forced the ships to take evasive action. The aggressive maneuvers by the speedboats were accompanied by a radio transmission warning the American ships that "We're coming at you and you'll explode in a couple of minutes," said a Pentagon official.
This is the second incident within a year where the Iranian navy has allegedly acted hostile. Late last March, the Iranian navy took prisoner 15 British sailors and marines for allegedly operating in Iranian waters, although Great Britain maintains the crew was in Iraqi waters.
Both incidents have been blamed on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard maritime force, which the Pentagon believes has taken over responsibility for Iran’s naval defense from its traditional navy.
As MSNBC reported during the British sailor crisis, incidents like these worry U.S. officials because with so much “military hardware concentrated in the Persian Gulf, just such a small incident could spiral out of control and trigger a major armed confrontation.”