Pentagon releases video depicting confrontation between US and Iranian forces
In a confrontation Sunday – captured on a 36-minute video the Pentagon made public Friday – military officials said boxes were thrown into the water by the Iranians, triggering concerns about potential mine threats. And in an incident last month, a U.S. ship fired warning shots at a rapidly approaching Iranian boat.
While there are lingering questions about the origin of menacing verbal threats heard during the confrontation Sunday in the Strait of Hormuz, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that the clash was the most “provocative and dramatic” he has seen.
“The incident ought to remind us all just how real is the threat posed by Iran and just how ready we are to meet that threat if it comes to it,” Mullen said.
Iran denied its boats threatened the U.S. vessels and accused Washington of fabricating its video. A five-minute video released by Iran shows a man speaking into a handheld radio, with three U.S. ships floating in the distance. That footage did not show any Iranian boats approaching the U.S. vessels nor any provocation.
Adm. William J. Fallon, the top U.S. military commander in the Mideast, told The Associated Press that Iran runs the risk of triggering an unintended conflict if its boats continue to harass U.S. warships in the strategic waterway.
Both Mullen and Fallon said they could not tell if the verbal threats heard in a Pentagon-released audio tape came from the Iranian boats. In the recording, a man with an accent can be heard warning in English: “I am coming to you” and then, “You will explode after ... minutes.”
The United States has lodged a formal diplomatic protest with Iran over Sunday’s incident, underscoring the increasing tension between the two countries.
Also Friday, the Navy for the first time described the December encounters in detail.
The USS Whidbey Island fired the warning shots on Dec. 19 in response to a small Iranian boat that was rapidly approaching, said a Navy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Three days later, the USS Carr encountered three small Iranian craft, two of which were armed, said the official. The USS Carr did not fire warning shots but sent warning blasts on the ships whistle, which caused the boats to turn around.
Sunday’s incident, in which five Iranian fast boats swarmed a convoy of three U.S. warships, caused the most concern in the Pentagon and also heightened interest in the grainy video shot by a crew member on the destroyer USS Hopper.
The video, which Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said was unedited, showed U.S. sailors answering radio calls from the Iranians and monitoring the five fast boats. For much of the time, the camera followed one or more of the fast boats moving around the U.S. ships. And at one point, it zoomed in on an object floating in the water – which Navy officials said was one of the boxes the Iranians were seen throwing overboard.
As the incident escalated, sailors on the Hopper can be heard growing more agitated about how fast and close the small boats were moving near the ships. They can also be heard referring to the fact that the U.S. ship had gone on high alert, in which all of the hatches and doors on the main deck and below were closed to prepare the ship for potential damage.
The verbal threats cannot be heard in the video because they were in a separate audio recording released earlier in the week.
Fallon said that while the U.S. was still trying to determine the source of the threatening radio call, he remained convinced that it was related to the actions of the Iranian boats.
“The voice is very strange. I don’t know whether it came from the boats or one of the shore stations,” Fallon said in a telephone interview from U.S. Central Command headquarters in Florida. “But the timing of it is pretty suspicious. In my mind, it is related to the maneuvers.”
“It certainly doesn’t sound like a third party that just happened to say something threatening at that moment,” he added.
Mullen, speaking at a Pentagon briefing, also said that while it was unclear where the radio transmission came from, it was equally threatening if it originated from the boats or from someone coordinating with them from shore.
If the assumption is that it was the Iranians, “that, to me gets to a level of sophistication that also is something that we ought to be concerned about,” Mullen said.
Regarding the Iranian strategy, Mullen told reporters that the U.S. has been focused “for several years” on this shift to greater use of small, fast boats by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has taken over patrols in the Gulf from Tehran’s regular navy.
“It’s clearly strategically where the Iranian military has gone,” Mullen said in his first solo Pentagon press briefing. “There’s a projection they were going to do that over a number of years. ... That was a big concern to me because of the history and the background with the IRGC (Revolutionary Guard.) This fit that mold, as far as I was concerned.”
Fallon added that the Navy believes the Revolutionary Guard now has responsibility for the whole Gulf, and has moved the Iranian navy further out into the Indian Ocean.
“The Revolutionary Guards have been the actors exporting trouble in the region,” said Fallon. “If they intend to increase tension or ratchet up the level of confrontation, these are the guys who are going to do it. The Iranian navy has been better behaved and much more professional.”
Mullen said that what bothered him most about the incident was that the boats swarmed so close to the U.S. ships and were dumping boxes into the water.
“We’ve been concerned for years about the threat of mining those straits,” Mullen said.
And sometimes at sea, it can be pretty difficult to determine “what they really did put in the water, depending on the range and the other kinds of conditions,” he said.
After reviewing the reports about Sunday’s incident, Mullen said, he believes the sailors and commanders acted “exactly right” given the behavior of the Iranian boats.
Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbot and Robert Burns contributed to this report. Abbott reported from Cairo.