"Unduly provocative" is the characterization used by Navy Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff, who also commands U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, to term the incident that just took place between the Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps and the US Navy. But I am still not sure if I understand what exactly happened. Clearly there are different versions.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman portrayed the incidence as a routine interaction which passed as the Americans identified themselves while Fars News is quoting an unidentified source from IRGC’s Navy as saying that the three American ships were contacted by Iranian vessels “as usual” to identify themselves and, after they did, continued their path.
The American versions of the event, however, include not only getting close (which according to an anonymous military official is usual) but something more. According to Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, “three U.S. ships had been in international waters passing through the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday when they were approached by five fast boats, at least some of which were visibly armed.” Iranian vessels apparently made “some aggressive maneuvers against our vessels and indicated some hostile intent." According to Whitman “the speed of the Iranian boats and their distance from the U.S. Navy vessels demonstrated potentially hostile intent. Bridge-to-bridge radio communications between the Iranian vessels and the U.S. Navy ships reinforced this impression.”
On record, Pentagon initially stayed mum about the content of the communication but an anonymous official told CNN the U.S. Navy received a radio transmission that "officials believe came from the Iranian boats." The transmission said, "I am coming at you. You will explode in a couple of minutes," CNN further reported that when the U.S. ships heard that radio transmission, they took up their gun positions and officers were "in the process" of giving the order to fire when the Iranians abruptly turned away. CNN goes on to say, “After the radio transmission, one of the Iranian boats dropped white boxes into the water in front of the U.S. ships.”
A variation of the sequence of events was relayed by Vice Admiral Cosgriff who said that after five boats approached the U.S. formation and "maneuvered aggressively in the direction of the U.S. ships, "U.S. captains called on the radio and sounded the ships’ horns to warn the Iranians off. It was apparently after this initial contact that “the (U.S.) ships received a radio call that was threatening to our ships to the effect that they were closing our ships and that the U.S. ships would explode.” So it seems to me that there needs to be some clarification about who called who first and when the verbal threat was voiced. There also needs to be a bit more clarity about exactly what words were used and whether there was a possibility of miscommunication.
I ask these questions because if such a verbal threat did actually occur, this is a big deal that cannot, as Juan Cole suggests, simply be attributed to “some gung-ho local IRGC commander who'd been at sea way too long.” As far as I am concerned, if there was indeed such a threatening communication to which the US Navy reacted, we are either talking about a case of miscommunication (a genuine mistake/misunderstanding on the part of US Navy) or an outright provocation on the Iranian part, the order for which must have come from the top perhaps to make a point prior to George Bush’s visit to the Middle East that Iran can make trouble for the US forces if it wishes to.
While I cannot rule out the possibility of this provocation, neither can I rule out the possibility voiced by some in the Iranian media that, given the big hoopla made about the incidence in the US as well as Arab media, that the Bush Administration is essentially trying to heighten the Iranian threat right before George Bush’s trip to the region which according to most observers has as one of its objectives the cementing of a coalition against Iran.
By the way, in the process of checking the reaction in the Iranian press, I stumbled on a denunciation in the hard-line Rajanews of the “unprecedented and provocative act” by the website belonging to the US Naval Forces Central Command identifying the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf. Iranians of all ilks are rather testy about this so I checked the command’s website and sure enough the first news item identifies the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf.
I have to admit that I am not very up to date about the controversy over the usage of the term and do not know if this is something new but a quick check of the command’s website suggests that it must not be as the command’s mission statement and map of the region also identify the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf. I had heard that in recent years various branches of the US armed forces had issued directives to their members to use the "Arabian Gulf" when operating in the area, presumably due to increased cooperation with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Apparently all multinational naval forces (including Australia, the US and UK) use "Arabian Gulf" during operations, and their naval charts reflect this. But my understanding was that since the United States officially accepts the Persian Gulf as the proper name (see for instance the CIA Fact book map of Iran) that the name was still used in official publications and websites of the military branches. I guess I was wrong. Learning something new everyday…