Iran General NewsNaval incident raises U.S.-Iran tensions

Naval incident raises U.S.-Iran tensions

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ImageWall Street Journal: A U.S.-flagged cargo ship transiting the Persian Gulf fired warning shots after two small, unidentified boats approached the vessel.

The Wall Street Journal

By CHIP CUMMINS
April 26, 2008; Page A3

ImageDUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A U.S.-flagged cargo ship transiting the Persian Gulf fired warning shots after two small, unidentified boats approached the vessel.

The cargo ship, contracted out to the U.S. Navy, reported that the Iranian coast guard contacted it shortly after the incident, raising fresh tensions between Washington and Tehran in the oil-rich Gulf. Iran has a history of playing cat-and-mouse games with American warships in the waterway.

The Persian Gulf incident rattled global oil markets. Futures for benchmark U.S. crude rose $2.46, or 2.1%, to close at $118.52 Friday, boosted in part by the news.

The Navy, however, has had a mixed record recently in assessing seaborne threats to its ships in the Middle East. President Bush had to apologize to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak late last month after security personnel on another ship under contract to the Navy fired on a small boat in the Suez Canal, killing one crew member.

The boat, it turned out, was one of many commercial vessels that ply the canal, selling goods to seafarers. The Navy said it would investigate the shooting. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which operates in the Middle East, said Friday she had no further information about the Egyptian incident.

And in January, U.S. officials released video footage and an audio recording of a Persian Gulf naval encounter that suggested Iranian patrol boats, which had approached Navy warships, had threatened over the radio to "explode" an unidentified target. The Pentagon later acknowledged it was impossible to determine whether the threat had come from the boats in question.

The Persian Gulf is a crowded waterway, packed with as many as a dozen or more U.S. Navy and allied warships at any one time. Cargo ships of various sizes, many of them small, and military craft from Gulf countries are found in the waters. The Gulf is also full of small fishing boats, many of which operate without standard navigational equipment, such as radios. Some fishing vessels are easily identified as traditional, wooden dhows. But some fishermen use faster, modern speedboats that look similar to small, coastal patrol craft used by Iran and other Persian Gulf nations.

The spokeswoman for the Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, said a private cargo vessel chartered by the Navy to transport military cargo was approached by two small boats about 8 a.m. local time Friday. She said the command had no further information about what type of small vessels the cargo ship reported.

According to a Fifth Fleet statement, the Westward Venture, approximately 1,000-feet long and owned by Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc., attempted to contact the two craft via radio but received no response. The ship then fired flares. After the two boats continued to approach Westward Venture, a U.S. Navy security detachment fired warning shots. The boats then left the area, the statement said.

The Westward Venture reported that shortly after the incident, it received a query from the Iranian coast guard, according to a statement issued by the Fifth Fleet. "It was not clear if this was one of the small boats or a separate boat," the statement said.

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