New evidence sparks uncertainty over US-Iran naval incident in Hormuz

Iranian video shows apparently routine activity by Iranian patrol boats, while Pentagon officials say radio threat may not have been from Iranian forces.

An Iranian video of Sunday's naval confrontation between Iran and the United States has intensified the debate over the seriousness of the incident.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the Iranian tape, aired Thursday by Iran's state-owned Press TV, was meant to reinforce Tehran's argument that the incident between Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrols and US warships on Sunday was a "normal inspections of vessels," not a hostile act.

The video showed an Iranian naval officer on a small boat speaking via radio to a ship which can not be clearly identified. A total of three ships can be seen on the video.
The Iranian officer says: "Coalition warship 73 this Iranian navy patrol boat".
"This is coalition warship 73. I read you loud and clear," the person replied in what appears to be an American accent.
The Iranian officer then appears to ask for the ships to identify themselves, although not all his words can be understood:
"Coalition warship 73 this Iranian navy patrol boat, request side number ... operating in the area this time," the Iranian voice says.

The tape stands in sharp contrast to US video of the incident released earlier, which Pentagon officials said showed a "careless, reckless and potentially hostile" confrontation on the Iranians' part, The Christian Science Monitor reporter earlier this week.

Three US Navy ships – the cruiser USS Port Royal, the destroyer USS Hopper, and the frigate USS Ingraham – were on patrol about 12 miles from Iranian territory in the Strait of Hormuz early Sunday when five small boats associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards approached them, Pentagon officials said. The fast boats, highly maneuverable patrol craft, were "visibly armed," a Pentagon spokesman said, and began aggressive maneuvers against the three American ships, steaming in formation into the Persian Gulf.
The boats got within 200 to 500 yards of the American ships before splitting into two groups. At least one of the fast boats then dropped several white boxes in the water in the pathway of the Ingraham, which successfully dodged them, considering them potential floating mines. Commanders of the US ships also 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."

The Monitor notes that the Strait of Hormuz is a critical waterway for oil traffic, since as much as 40 percent of the world's oil exports travel through it.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and other US officials are still concerned by the incident.

"I think that what concerned us was, first, the fact that there were five of these boats, and second, that they came as close as they did to our ships and behaved in what appeared to be a pretty aggressive manner," [Mr. Gates] said. "So I think it's all of those things that raise concerns."
The Bush administration lodged a formal diplomatic protest Thursday in a note given to Swiss diplomats in Tehran, the Iranian capital. The Bush administration relies on the Swiss to help oversee Washington's interests in Iran in the absence of formal relations between the Islamic Republic and the U.S.

But the Pentagon has conceded that the threatening voice in the US video may not have come from the patrol boats, writes The Washington Post. The Post adds that such a concession appears to contradict the implications of earlier Pentagon statements about the video.

Pentagon officials insist that they never claimed Iran made the threat. "No one in the military has said that the transmission emanated from those boats. But when they hear it simultaneously to the behavior of those boats, it only adds to the tension," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. "If this verbal threat emanated from something or someone unrelated to the five boats, it would not lessen the threat from those boats." ...
"When you get a bridge-to-bridge call, you have no way of knowing where it came from," Thorp said. "Nobody ever, with any certainty, knew it was from them. But it did escalate it up a notch as it was happening at the same time" that the patrol boats, manned by Revolutionary Guards, engaged in menacing behavior, [Rear Adm. Frank Thorp IV, a spokesman for the Navy,] said.

The Post notes that Farsi speakers and Iranians who listened to the verbal threat said the speaker's accent did not sound Iranian.

Bloomberg reports that Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for the Fifth Fleet, also admitted that the radio threat may have come from another ship or from shore, though she added that the Iranian boats were moving threateningly before the radio threat was received.

A reader comment posted on The New York Times blog The Lede, and later reposted in the blog itself, suggests that the confrontation may have been sparked by a third party. The reader, who said he has served as an officer aboard a US destroyer in the Strait of Hormuz region, writes that the harassment by Iranian patrols is "totally believeable." He adds the caveat, however, that the radio channel over which the US warships and the Iranian patrols were communicating, UHF frequency channel 16, is like "bad CB radio" in the Persian Gulf.

Everybody and their brother is on it; chattering away.... On Ch. 16, esp. in that section of the Gulf, slurs/threats/chatter/etc. [are] commonplace. So my first thought was that the "explode" comment might not have even come from one of the Iranian craft, but some loser monitoring the events at a shore facility. The Navy even seemed to admit as much today when they said the transmission could not be traced directly to the small boats.
So I hope everybody exercises great caution here and doesn't jump to conclusions, given the circumstances and potential for escalation.
What I do want everybody to know is that those Navy crews are doing their damned best out there, and given the current situation/previous experience with the USS Cole, would certainly be justified in shooting at any small craft that makes aggressive runs at them, especially after being warned.

William Arkin, a blogger on homeland security for The Washington Post, writes that Iran's insistence that it did nothing wrong may actually open a door for American diplomacy.

How can we forge a positive outcome from this incident? In accepting that the American naval passage was indeed routine, Iran is not only conveying that U.S. and other coalition naval ships have the right to pass through the Straits, but also that any incidents that occur need not escalate to a shooting war. ...
If Iran wants to claim its innocence, why not take advantage of its mendacity to start a professional dialogue between two navies and set the path to ensure that such incidents in the future don't escalate to war?
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