WASHINGTON In what U.S. officials called a serious provocation, Iranian boats harassed and provoked three U.S. Navy ships in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, threatening to explode the American vessels.
U.S. forces were on the verge of firing on the Iranian boats in the early Sunday incident, when the boats believed to be from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's navy turned and moved away, a Pentagon official said. "It is the most serious provocation of this sort that we've seen yet," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman called it a "serious incident. This is something that deserves an explanation."
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the United States urges the Iranians "to refrain from such provocative actions that could lead to a dangerous incident in the future."
The incident occurred at about 5 a.m. local time Sunday as Navy cruiser USS Port Royal, destroyer USS Hopper and frigate USS Ingraham were on their way into the Persian Gulf and passing through the strait a major oil shipping route.
Five small boats began charging the U.S. ships, dropping boxes in the water in front of the ships and forcing the U.S. ships to take evasive maneuvers, the Pentagon official said.
There were no injuries but the official said there could have been, because the Iranian boats turned away "literally at the very moment that U.S. forces were preparing to open fire" in self defense.
The official said he didn't have the precise transcript of communications that passed between the two forces, but said the Iranians radioed something like "we're coming at you and you'll explode in a couple minutes."
Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment Monday, and there was no news of the incident on Iranian state-run media.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said he was not aware of any plans to lodge a formal protest.
"Without specific reference to this incident in the Strait of Hormuz, the United States will confront Iranian behavior where it seeks to do harm either to us or to our friends and allies in the region," McCormack told reporters. "There is wide support for that within the region and certainly that's not going to change."
Whitman said the Pentagon will work with State and National Security Council officials to determine "the appropriate way to address this with the Iranian government."
The U.S. vessels were in international waters, making a normal transit into the Gulf, Whitman said, adding that the Iranian boats were operating at "distances and speeds that showed reckless and dangerous intent reckless, dangerous and potentially hostile intent."
He said the episode lasted 15 to 20 minutes but wouldn't say whether officials know for certain whether the were vessels were Iranian Revolutionary Guard or regular Iranian navy. The Revolutionary Guard forces have been known to be more aggressive than the regular navy.
"At least some were visibly armed. Small Iranian fastboats made some aggressive maneuvers against our vessels and indicated some hostile intent," Whitman.
Historical tensions between the two nations have increased in recent years over Washington's charge that Tehran has been developing nuclear weapons and supplying and training Iraqi insurgents using roadside bombs the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.
In another incident off its coast, Iranian Revolutionary Guard sailors last March captured 15 British sailors and held them for nearly two weeks.
The 15 sailors from HMS Cornwall, including one woman, were captured on March 23. Iran claims the crew, operating in a small patrol craft, had intruded into Iranian waters a claim Britain denied.
The weekend incident came as President Bush prepared for his first major trip to the Middle East. While scheduled to meet the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other regional nations Jan. 9-16, Bush is expected to try to bolster the troubled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians but is also likely to seek backing for U.S. concerns about Iran.
At about this time last year, Bush announced he was sending a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf region in a show of force against Iran. The U.S. Navy quietly scaled back to one carrier group several months later. But while the two were there, they staged two major exercises off Iran's coast.
The war games amounted to U.S. muscle-flexing at a time when Tehran increasingly was at loggerheads with the international community over its disputed nuclear program and threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz for oil transports in case of a U.S. military strike on Iran.
Since then, there have been diplomatic overtures aimed at calming tensions.The United States maintains nearly 40,000 troops in Gulf countries other than Iraq, with the largest group in Kuwait and others in Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Associated Press reporters Matthew Lee, Robert Burns and Jennifer Loven contributed to this report.