Special Report by Charles Strathdee

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps speedboats played a dangerous game of cat and mouse with three American warships in the Gulf. The bridge watch teams of the cruiser USS Port Royal, destroyer USS Hopper and frigate USS Ingraham were astonished to hear an Iranian voice tell them over the radio that their ships would soon blow up. The menacing statement came towards the conclusion of an extraordinary series of events in which the IRGC speedboats came dangerously close to the American warships, which were preparing to open fire. The incident began in the early hours of January 6, as the warships made a transit into the Gulf via the narrow Straits of Hormuz. Five Iranian craft lunged out of the dim light in the north. During a Pentagon briefing within hours of the incident the admiral in command of US and Coalition naval forces in the Gulf labeled the Iranian actions "unduly provocative."  Vice Admiral Kevin J. Cosgriff said: "The five boats approached the US formation on its starboard bow in international waters slightly inside the Gulf from the apex of the strait.” He explained that the Iranian fast craft then divided into two groups, one each side of the USN warships. "The groups maneuvered aggressively in the direction of the US ships," Vice Admiral Cosgriff added.  In a video released on the web by the US Department of Defense, the bridge team of the USS Hopper is seen repeatedly warning the Iranians off, and the Arleigh Burke Class warship also sounds her horn repeatedly. A stilted response is eventually received from someone in one of the Iranian boats, but threatening the American ships with destruction. Vice Admiral Cosgriff explained: "The US ships received a radio call that was threatening to our ships to the effect that they were closing our ships and that the US ships would explode.” Sailors in the USN warships spotted the occupants of the boats dropping objects in the water ahead of them, further increasing tension, and escalating the incident to a situation where the Americans would be forced to open fire, in order to defend themselves. "These objects were white box-like objects that floated," said Vice Admiral Cosgriff. Fortunately, the American warships were able to avoid the ‘box-like objects’ and after coming up close astern the Iranian speedboats departed the scene. However, half an hour later they returned to again menace the three warships before disappearing in the direction of Iran. Vice Admiral Cosgriff said there was no excuse for the Iranian actions. In addition to being in international waters, the USN vessels “were clearly marked,” he said. Cosgriff went on: “It was daylight, with decent visibility. The behavior of the Iranian ships was unnecessary, without due regard to safety of navigation and unduly provocative in the aggregate of their maneuvers, the radio call and the dropping of objects in the water." Vice Admiral Cosgriff praised the sailors of the USN warships for keeping a cool head in dealing with the Iranian provocation. For their part the Iranians remained unrepentant, going as far as claiming that the actions of the IRGC speedboats were normal procedure. IRGC  commander Ali Reza Tangsiri  reportedly  said that Iran was within its rights to interrogate and investigate any ships entering or leaving the Gulf. He allegedly said: “It is a basic responsibility of patrolling units of the Revolutionary Guards to take necessary interception measures toward any vessels entering into the waters of the Persian Gulf.”  This cut no ice with President Bush, who told a White House press conference: “My message to the Iranians is simple: They shouldn’t have done what they did.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates was similarly perturbed. “I found the action by the Iranians quite troubling, actually, and a matter of real concern,” he said. “This is a very volatile area, and the risk of an incident escalating is real. I think that it is a reminder that there is a very unpredictable government in Tehran. And it would be nice to see the Iranian government disavow this action and say that it won’t happen again.”  Such incidents were commonplace 20 years ago, during the so-called Tanker War that took place at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. In 2004, the Iranians kidnapped UK naval personnel on the Shatt-al-Arab Waterway and only last year a further 15 Royal Navy sailors and marines from HMS Cornwall were taken prisoner by maritime units of the IRGC.

A sailor on the bridge of the USS Hopper

A sailor on the bridge of the USS Hopper uses the radio to warn the Iranian boats off. Photo: US DoD.

One of Iranian speedboats comes dangerously close to an American warship

One of the Iranian speedboats comes dangerously close to an American warship. Photo: US Navy.

Two of the Iranian speedboats come up fast, and too close to the USS Port Royal

Two of the Iranian speedboats come up fast, and too close to, the cruiser USS Port Royal. Photo: US DoD.

USS Ingraham which was involved in the incident

A file photo of the frigate USS Ingraham, which was involved in the incident with the Iranian speedboats. Photo: US Navy.