Hey everybody! I’m back after a long hiatus, honeymoon and oodles of time with the in-laws. But I’m back in Beirut now and ready for action.
And what a day to come back to work. In a very disturbing development, [five Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats harassed three big U.S. naval vessels in the Arabian Gulf](http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/01/07/america/US-Navy-Iran.php), nearly sparking a sea battle, according to the Pentagon. Over the weekend, the five smaller vessels threatened an American frigate, destroyer and cruiser in the Strait of Hormuz.
“Five small boats were acting in a very aggressive way, charging the ships, dropping boxes in the water in front of the ships and causing our ships to take evasive maneuvers,” a Pentagon official said. There was also communications between the Americans and the Iranians, which the Pentagon described to the effect of, “we’re coming at you and you’ll explode in a couple minutes.”
The story doesn’t describe them beyond “small boats,” so they could be patrol boats or the Iranian equivalent of the American RHIBs (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats), but even so, they could do some real damage. The [U.S.S. Cole](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Cole_bombing) and the [UK 15](http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,,-6796836,00.html) are high on everyone’s mind in the Gulf, as is the attack on the [U.S.S. Firebolt](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Firebolt_(PC-10)).
And from my time with the American, British and Australian forces in the Gulf, I can tell you the Iranians are considered the foremost threat. [As I wrote back in July last year](http://www.spot-on.com/archives/allbritton/2007/07/water_and_oil_mix_in_the_gulf_1.html):
The Iranians are a constant presence in the Gulf, which is natural considering its long coastline on the Gulf. And not far from KAAOT, they’ve made a naval base on a crane that sunk during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. (Part of it still sticks up out of the water.) You can see it with the naked eye and American commanders say the Iranians are conducting recon ops on the Coalition forces.
The Iranian Navy gets some respect from [Cmdr. Jim Aiken, 40, who captains the American guided missile destroyer Chung-Hoon] and other commanders, who told me that when passing through the bottleneck to the Gulf called the [Strait of Hormuz](http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://worldatlas.com/aatlas/infopage/hormuz.gif&imgrefurl=http://worldatlas.com/aatlas/infopage/printpage/hormuz.htm&h=426&w=427&sz=25&hl=en&start=3&um=1&tbnid=WdgznmPezyzFtM:&tbnh=126&tbnw=126&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dstrait%2Bof%2Bhormuz%26svnum%3D10%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26hs%3D6j8%26sa%3DX), a passing Iranian Navy ship presented colors and her sailors saluted, holding fast to naval traditions the world over. But the IRGC Navy is a different story. The Coalition sailors I spoke with called them thugs and accused them of basically running a protection racket on dhows that venture into their part of the Gulf.
At the time, I asked Aiken what would happen if the Iranians tried to grab some U.S. sailors like they to the 15 British commandos back in March 2007. He mumbled some stuff before finally saying the U.S. would shoot back. And that’s almost what happened in this incident. The Pentagon official said the Iranians turned back “literally at the very moment that U.S. forced were preparing to open fire.”
What does this mean? I’m not sure yet; it could be just one of those things but it’s interesting that the IRGC took over Iran’s naval command in the Gulf back in November, according to the U.S. Navy. It could be a probe, a provocation or some yahoos out of control. The IRGC isn’t the most unified or disciplined of armed forces. But no matter what, the Iranians have given President Bush some fresh PR to use against them [when he comes calling on the region this week](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/06/AR2008010601574.html?hpid=moreheadlines) to shore up an anti-Iran coalition among Arab states.
**UPDATE 1/8/08 10:36:24 AM:** Folks more knowledgeable than me are chewing this over, and they’re smelling a rat. It *is* awfully convenient that an incident happens on the even of Bush’s visit to the region where containing Iranian aggression is high on the president’s agenda. And the Navy claims the IRGC-N is running protection rackets and smuggling. Could the dumped white boxes have been Iranian attempts to dump contraband? On the other hand, the U.S.S. Cole incident has made the Navy understandably twitchy. Those guys out there are *switched on*, big time. And Iranian explanation that they didn’t recognize the ships is implausible at best. A cruiser, destroyer and frigate aren’t small ships, and the only naval power of force in the Gulf’s international waters are going to be either American, British or Australian. The Iranians knew with whom they were playing chicken. Perhaps this was an indication from Iran that it can cause trouble on multiple fronts for the U.S. and its allies?
There’s also a history of Iranian aggression in the Gulf during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and the war of the tankers. The Iranians laid mines in international waters that led to the [U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts incident](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Samuel_B._Roberts_%28FFG-58%29#1988_deployment_and_mine_strike).
So, in short, there are good reasons for both sides to provoke the other, and it remains to be seen what — if anything — will come of this. In all honesty, probably nothing, but we’ll have to wait and see.