AP: The Persian Gulf confrontation between U.S. and Iranian forces ended without a shot being fired. But it handed the Bush administration new ammunition in its battle to convince allies that the Tehran government is a threat even without nuclear weapons. The Associated Press
By ROBERT BURNS
WASHINGTON (AP) The Persian Gulf confrontation between U.S. and Iranian forces ended without a shot being fired. But it handed the Bush administration new ammunition in its battle to convince allies that the Tehran government is a threat even without nuclear weapons.
The motivation for Iranian fastboats to dare to challenge a convoy of three much larger but less maneuverable U.S. Navy warships as they sailed the Strait of Hormuz very nearly provoking the Americans to open fire is unclear. Regardless, it served some purpose for both governments.
From the point of view of President Bush, who opened a Middle East trip Wednesday with Iran high on the agenda, the episode in the Gulf underscored his assertion that the Iranians are capable of acting recklessly. The unspoken implication: Who knows what they might do if they got nuclear weapons?
Bush stressed his concern at a news conference in Jerusalem when a reporter asked what action the United States would take if Iranian naval boats again swarmed a U.S. warship in international waters and threatened to blow it up. The president accused Iran of a “dangerous gesture” and added, “there will be serious consequences if they attack our ships, pure and simple.”
Bush said “all options are on the table to secure our assets.” Iran continues to be a “threat to world peace,” he said.
After the release of a new U.S. intelligence assessment on Iran last month, the Bush administration lost ground in its campaign to persuade other countries to impose tougher U.N. sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt enrichment of uranium, an ingredient in nuclear bombs. The intelligence report said Iran had abandoned a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 and had not resumed it since.
The head of the U.N. atomic watchdog, Mohamed El-Baradei, will be in Tehran this week to discuss Iranian compliance with international demands to halt its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged El-Baradei to press for full cooperation.
“They discussed his upcoming trip and the need for Iran to respond to all questions about its past nuclear activities and that they comply with all U.N. Security Council resolutions,” deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said of the brief phone call between the two late on Tuesday.
For Bush, he can and likely will use the episode in the Gulf on Sunday to bolster his argument that the Iranians cannot be trusted to act rationally and therefore must be stopped from acquiring more nuclear knowhow.
Charles Dunbar, a professor of international relations at Boston University who served in diplomatic posts in Iran for four years in the 1960s, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that it seemed unlikely that a decision to provoke the Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz was made at high government levels in Tehran.
“It is clear that the Iranian regime is very much divided on how to deal with the United States,” Dunbar said. President Mahmoud “Ahmadinejad would seem to be somebody who perceives himself to be thriving on confrontation with the United States, but there are a lot of other elements in the regime who do not see things as he does.”
Still, the incident serves a domestic political purpose for Ahmadinejad, for whom a flare-up in tensions with Washington can be seen as useful in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for March.
In Paris, an official of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of Iranian opposition groups, said he believed Ahmadinejad was looking for ways to create a confrontation with the Americans.
“The Iranian regime, facing rising public discontent and anti-government demonstrations in Iran, is in more need of show of force than ever before,” Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of the resistance group’s foreign affairs committee, said in an e-mail exchange Wednesday. “Aggressive belligerence and crisis-making to cover up its weakness and isolation at home has been the clerical regime’s strategy since placing Ahmadinejad as its president.”
Iran’s state-run TV accused the United States of fabricating video and audio released by the Pentagon in which Iranian fastboats are depicted darting toward and around a U.S. warship on Sunday. In the released audio, a man speaking in heavily accented English said in a menacing tone, “I am coming to you. … You will explode after … minutes.” The origin of the voice is unclear, although the Pentagon made it seem that the verbal threat came from the approaching Iranian boats.
It appears from the video tape that the Iranians ignored repeated requests by radio from the American ship to identify themselves, to state their intentions and to stay clear of the ship’s path.
The full context in which the confrontation unfolded is not yet clear. There is some question, for example, about how often Iranian boats intercept U.S. warships transiting the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway that leads to the Gulf and through which a large portion of world oil supplies transit. The confrontation with the Iranian boats happened at the eastern end of the Straits, about three miles outside Iran’s territorial waters, according to the Navy.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that, while he found the incident troubling and puzzling, he has been informed that there were “two or three of these events maybe not quite as dramatic as this one over the last year.” He said the latest episode was a “reminder that there is a very unpredictable government in Tehran.”
EDITOR’S NOTE _ Robert Burns has been covering military and national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.