By Borzou Daragahi and Julian E. Barnes
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
January 11, 2008
The videotape, broadcast on Iran's state-owned English-language Press TV channel, was meant to bolster Iran's contention that nothing more than routine contact took place between speedboats of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and three U.S. warships attached to the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.
U.S. officials, including President Bush, have alleged that the Iranian boats harassed the ships in what they described as a dangerous provocation in the Strait of Hormuz. They released a four-minute, 20-second videotape this week purporting to show snippets of the incident with the Iranian boats sailing too close to the U.S. ships and making threats by radio during what was described as a 20-minute confrontation.
Iran has called the U.S. tape a fake. Its own version, also brief and heavily edited, shows the Revolutionary Guard naval forces making radio contact with the warships, and the Americans calmly replying in what Iranians describe as everyday interaction.
"Coalition warship 73, this is Iranian navy patrol boat 16. Come in. Over," an Iranian sailor aboard a speedboat says in English to a U.S. warship apparently in the distance. "Request present course and speed."
"This is coalition warship 73," a voice says over the radio in American English. "I am operating in international waters."
Another section of the five-minute, 20-second video, which was posted on Press TV's website, presstv.ir, shows Iranian patrol boats speeding in the vicinity of U.S. ships, apparently in an attempt to videotape the numbering on the ships.
"Slowly get closer," says a voice off camera. "The number is not yet clear."
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that despite the Iranian view, U.S. officials remained troubled.
"I think that what concerned us was, first, the fact that there were five of these boats, and second, that they came as close as they did to our ships and behaved in what appeared to be a pretty aggressive manner," he said. "So I think it's all of those things that raise concerns."
The Bush administration lodged a formal diplomatic protest Thursday in a note given to Swiss diplomats in Tehran, the Iranian capital. The Bush administration relies on the Swiss to help oversee Washington's interests in Iran in the absence of formal relations between the Islamic Republic and the U.S.
U.S. defense officials also rejected the contention that their tape was a fabrication.
Clarifying earlier accounts, officials said Thursday that they did not know whether a radio call in which a voice threatened to "explode" the U.S. ships came from the small boats or whether it came from another source.
When first describing the incident this week, top Air Force officials noted that the radio threat was received at the same time as the encounter with the Iranian boats. Officials did not dispute that sequence Thursday, but said it could have been made from the shore or from a boat.
Some Iranian analysts have worried that the incident could indicate an attempt by hard-liners in the government to spark an international crisis, as a means of consolidating their control on Iran's political scene before March 14 parliamentary elections. Hard-liners close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad face a tough challenge by moderates and reformists.
But others said the video might have been released not only to counter the American tape but also to ease tensions -- suggesting that the confrontation in the strait was not serious.
The incident, first publicized Monday by U.S. officials in Washington, came just before Bush left for the Middle East to bolster Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and confer with allies in an attempt to counter Iran's regional ambitions.
Daragahi reported from Beirut and Barnes from Washington.
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