MANAMA, Bahrain — A large flotilla of Iranian gunboats approached an oil terminal run by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the northern Persian Gulf early Saturday but dispersed and retreated as U.S. warships sped to the scene to confront them, diplomats and maritime sources said.
Shipping officials, quoting eyewitness accounts from workers on offshore oil platforms in the area, said that Saudi jet fighters also scrambled to repel the invaders, and there were unconfirmed reports that at least one of the planes may have opened fire.
Although U.S. officials said they could not confirm reports of hostilities breaking out, the incident raised tensions in the crucial waterway to a peak where the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian clash could be imminent, diplomats in the region agreed.
'Going Up Notch by Notch'
"There doesn't seem to be any way to wind down the tension," one Western diplomat said. "It keeps going up notch by notch. Now everybody is just waiting for the match that lights the fuse."
It was a day that tested the nerves of naval commanders at both ends of the gulf, where the resources of a 10-ship U.S. task force have been stretched thin in recent days by a new wave of Iranian attacks on tankers and by the discovery of more underwater mines in the area.
As four U.S. warships raced northward through the night toward the Saudi coast, a tense confrontation also took place at the southern end of the waterway, where an Iranian warship locked its missile-firing radar onto a U.S. Navy ship and ignored initial warnings to stand down.
Iranian Vessel Warned
The identity of the U.S. ship involved and the exact location of the confrontation were not clear. But journalists monitoring maritime radio traffic off Dubai, at the southern end of the gulf, overheard the U.S. ship broadcast a firm warning to the Iranian vessel.
"Iranian warship, Iranian warship. . . . You have locked your fire control radar on a U.S. warship bearing 291 (and) 16,600 yards from you. Secure it immediately. This is your only warning," the broadcast said.
The incident occurred at 6:08 a.m. Saturday, and the warning was repeated three times over the next eight minutes before the Iranian ship finally obeyed.
A U.S. military source noted that targeting a U.S. ship amounts to an act of "hostile intent" which, under the rules of engagement for U.S. forces operating in the gulf, would have justified a preemptive attack on the Iranian vessel. But the source added that the decision to open fire is "left to the discretion of the individual commander," who in this case decided to stand down the Iranian ship.
However, it was the unusually large and threatening Iranian naval movements at the northern end of the gulf that caused the most concern and prompted an emergency redeployment of U.S. forces during the night.
A senior diplomatic source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a "huge" flotilla of Iranian speedboats, said to number at least 50 vessels, left their bases at Farsi and Kharg islands in the northern gulf in the pre-dawn hours and headed toward the Ras al Khafji oil terminal operated jointly by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Iraq's two staunchest Arab allies in the Iran-Iraq War.
The terminal, whose oil is used to help finance Iraq's war effort, is located about 30 miles offshore, Oil experts estimate that Iraq receives more than $4 million per day in proceeds from the sale of oil pumped from the offshore field.
Strangely, Saudia Arabia and Kuwait both denied any knowledge of the approaching Iranian flotilla. Kuwait said its air and sea surveillance units detected no signs of unusual activity in the region during the night, and Saudi Arabia flatly denied that any confrontation had taken place.
"No Iranian or non-Iranian boat approached Saudi territorial waters and no Saudi air force jet intercepted any Iranian gunboats in the gulf," a Saudi Defense Ministry spokesman insisted.
However, diplomats described the denials as attempts to lower tensions in the aftermath of the affair, which appeared to end without bloodshed when the Iranians withdrew shortly before daybreak.
Despite their growing anger with Iran, neither Saudi Arabia nor Kuwait wants to risk a war with their larger and more powerful neighbor across the gulf, the diplomats noted. "They probably did not count on the reports spreading so fast and thought they could get away with denying it," one diplomat said.
Talking Off the Record
Because of the fears and extreme sensitivities of the small Arab states on the western side of the gulf to any suggestion that they could be drawn into the war against Iran, diplomats and other officials agreed to discuss the Ras al Khafji incident only on the condition that they not be identified by either name or nationality.
However, information pieced together from several extremely reliable sources provided the following account: