Mystery surrounds two weekend confrontations involving the United States Navy and suspected Iranian forces in the Gulf. The two incidents are considered unusual because the US Navy and Iranian forces stationed in the Gulf take special precautions to avoid misunderstandings and surprises that might lead to an unintended military confrontation.
In one incident, two US reconnaissance helicopters came under fire from a ``platform'' and three unlighted boats in the south-central Gulf early Sunday. The helicopters retreated without returning fire, and there were no casualties, according to a Navy spokesman.
In a confrontation Saturday, the US Navy opened fire on two small craft thought to be Iranian speedboats. They were detected on radar approaching in rough seas a US Navy supply and observation barge anchored in the northern Gulf. When the vessels failed to alter their course after repeated warnings, a nearby guided-missile frigate, the USS John A. Moore, opened fire.
``They basically disappeared from radar. We don't know if we hit anything or not,'' says Navy spokesman Lt. Comdr. Mark Van Dyke.
``We went back and conducted a search of the area and found no evidence of debris,'' the lieutenant commander said.
Neither the Iranian news agency nor Radio Tehran has mentioned the incident in the northern Gulf. The Iranian news agency, however, has confirmed the helicopter shooting incident, saying that the US helicopters ignored Iranian radio warnings not to approach an Iranian ``zone'' in the southern Gulf. When the US helicopters entered the zone, Iranian guns opened up, the news agency said, quoting an Iranian commander.
US Navy spokesmen declined comment on whether the US helicopters or a nearby US warship were in radio contact with the platform before, during, or after the incident.
There are indications that the US Navy has adopted a new, lower-profile policy of avoiding when possible US-Iranian conflicts.
The shooting shattered an 18-day lull in the Gulf during which neither Iran nor Iraq has announced raids on tankers or other commercial shipping in Gulf waters. Instead, both nations pound each other's cities with missiles and bombs as the ``war of the cities'' escalates.
The Iranians in the past have announced that their forces fired ``warning shots'' at approaching US Navy helicopters. US officials suggest that the Iranians may confuse US military helicopters with the regular civilian helicopter traffic ferrying workmen, supplies, and equipment to the numerous offshore oil rigs that dot the southern Gulf.
Last Feb. 12, the Iranians said they fired shots at US helicopters near Abu Musa and Sirri Islands in the Gulf's southern waters. A US military spokesman denied that any such incident occurred.
The US Navy acknowledges only one other case of Iranian shots directed at US helicopters. Last Oct. 8, US helicopters blasted three Iranian vessels near Farisiyah Island in the central Gulf after the Iranians opened fire. One of the boats was sunk, two others were damaged.
The Oct. 8 action was in sharp contrast to the Sunday morning attack when, instead of shooting back, the two US helicopters took evasive action and backed out of range.
At the time of the Oct. 8 incident, US officials stressed that by shooting back and sinking an Iranian boat the helicopter pilots were defending themselves. Commander Van Dyke said self defense was also the top priority during the more recent attack Sunday morning. The two helicopters are said to have come under fire from several directions.
``They did what they needed to do to defend themselves,'' the Navy spokesman said. Paraphrasing a recent comment by Gen. George Crist, commander of US forces in the region, he added, ``We are not here [in the Gulf] to thump anybody.''
The captain of the USS Simpson, which was nearby when the attack occurred, told Pentagon media pool reporters aboard the Simpson that he had been in contact with ``higher authorities'' during the incident. But he declined to say whether any decision had been made on whether to shoot back or withdraw.
One Gulf-based analyst suggests that the US may have been interested in preventing the shooting from escalating into another US-Iranian confrontation at a time when the US is pushing hard within the United Nations Security Council to impose an arms embargo against Iran.
This same analyst says the firing may have come from Iranian Revolutionary Guards acting on their own without orders from the Iranian government in Tehran. ``It may have just been some loose cannons out there,'' he says.