How to prevent war with Iran.

Military analysis.
Jan. 10 2008 6:29 PM

What Happened in the Strait of Hormuz?

How to prevent a naval war with Iran.

The USS Port Royal. Click image to epxand.
The USS Port Royal

Just how serious was the half-hour standoff Sunday morning between three American warships and five Iranian speed boats in the Strait of Hormuz? Did we come close to war? Was there any provocation? Was the Pentagon's version of events, as the Iranians claim, a fake?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and the author of Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, due out next month. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

In response to the Iranians' charge, the Defense Department released excerpts from a videotape of the incident. In response to that, the Iranians issued their own video. Both clips are strange. They are also very different from each other. There's a good reason, however, for the strangeness and the contradictions.

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The Pentagon's footage shows five speed boats making provocative maneuvers a couple of hundred yards from an American warship. Speaking in English over the standard radio frequency, a U.S. Navy officer identifies his ship. Suddenly, an Iranian voice, in heavily accented English, is heard saying, "I am coming to you. You will explode in [unintelligible] minutes." The voice sounds superimposed; it is much louder than the other voices; there's also no background noise of engines or waves, as there would be if the speaker were on one of the speed boats.

Meanwhile, the Iranians' footage shows an American vessel in the distance. An Iranian, speaking through a radio, says, "Coalition warship 73. This is Iranian patrol boat." We hear the American say, "I read you loud and clear." A bit later, the American says, "We are in international waters." In short, nothing momentous is going on at all. It is, as the Iranian foreign ministry shrugged afterward, "ordinary."

The likely explanation for the differences is this: The two videos are of two different incidents. During his Jan. 7 news conference, Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, noted that American and Iranian ships have many interactions that are usually civil and peaceful, then he said:

In fact, this group [of U.S. warships] had passed an Iranian navy ship earlier in its transit and exchanged quite correct radio communications with that Iranian ship.

This earlier contact—with its "quite correct" communications—is probably the one depicted in the Iranian video. (I thank William M. Arkin, who writes the Washington Post's Early Warning blog, for this insight.)

As for the threatening Iranian voice in the Pentagon's videotape, it sounds so different, so removed, because it was removed. Some officials now say that the warning was probably a radio communication from someone on shore—presumably a Revolutionary Guard commander, but who knows. That doesn't make the warning any less ominous, at least to the U.S. captains on the scene at the time; it only explains why it might sound disconnected. It's worth noting here that, as Pentagon officials acknowledge, the audio and video tracks were made separately and were pieced together later. Again, there's nothing necessarily nefarious about this; it only explains why the audio seems a bit out of synch from the video.