WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger warned Friday that the United States will "teach lessons" to Iran if it continues to harass shipping in the Persian Gulf.
While stressing that "we don't have any desire for war," Weinberger told a Washington audience that if Iran interferes with neutral shipping in the gulf, "then we teach lessons or we take the necessary steps to make sure that it isn't interfered with."
At the same time, Weinberger confirmed for the first time that the Iranians possess sophisticated U.S.-made Stinger surface-to-air missiles.
The tough talk came a day after American military helicopters put out of action three Iranian patrol boats that reportedly fired on a U.S. surveillance helicopter. The attack left two Iranian sailors dead and four in captivity, two of them seriously injured, Pentagon officials said. Earlier, six Iranians had been reported rescued and none had been reported killed.
Asylum to Be Offered
American forces are providing medical care for the injured Iranians aboard the transport ship Raleigh in the northern gulf and will give the four captives the opportunity to seek political asylum, the State Department said.
The asylum offer represents an apparent change of U.S. policy toward Iranians captured in such actions. After the U.S. attack on the Iranian mine-laying ship Iran Ajr on Sept. 21, the United States returned 26 Iranians to Iran without giving them a chance to seek asylum.
Weinberger angrily denied Iranian charges that the U.S. helicopters fired first and said that American forces responded properly to the Iranian gunfire.
"Our men should not be required to be hit before they are authorized to respond," the secretary said before a Washington forum sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency. "So when you have a clear hostile act--and I can't imagine anything more hostile than being shot at--you have the authority immediately, automatically to respond appropriately."
Although Weinberger conceded that the United States does not have "absolutely conclusive evidence" that the Iranians fired first, as it did that the Iran Ajr was laying mines, he said he has no doubt that U.S. action was taken in self-defense. The American helicopters were not hit, and no U.S. servicemen were hurt, he said.
In disclosing additional details of Thursday's attack on the Iranian patrol boats, Weinberger said that only one of the three boats fired upon was sunk, contrary to earlier Pentagon reports. Two smaller boats, described as open Boston Whaler-type boats, were "totally" disabled but not sunk and had been taken into U.S. custody by warships in the region.
"We have them under control, and we'll be examining them fairly closely," Weinberger said.
The third boat, a 42-foot, high-speed patrol craft built by the Boghammar boat works in Sweden, was sunk and will not be recovered, Pentagon officials said. Weinberger described the boat as "very heavily equipped," carrying machine guns, Stinger missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.
A fourth Iranian ship, described by Weinberger as a "corvette" about 160 feet long, escaped at high speed, he said.
No Additional Survivors
Weinberger probably was referring to a French-made fast attack craft of the "Kaman" class that Iran bought during the reign of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Pentagon sources said.
Although the secretary did not elaborate on the Iranians' possession of the Stingers, the London Sunday Times and official U.S. sources said the highly effective anti-aircraft missiles were bought from one of the Afghan rebel groups. The United States has provided hundreds of the Stingers to the Muslim guerrillas fighting Soviet troops and the Kremlin-backed regime in Afghanistan.
A Pentagon official who asked not to be identified said that Navy rescue crews Friday found no additional Iranian survivors or casualties of Thursday's attack but added that there "have to be more."
The Boghammar boat normally carries a crew of seven, and the smaller boats are manned by at least two crew members and sometimes several more.
Pentagon sources said that the American helicopters, thought to be a small, quiet MH-6 observation craft and two Army AH-6 Sea Bat attack helicopters, had been sent aloft Thursday night because the Iranian boats were nearing an area where the Navy had anchored a huge barge.
The barge is being used as a floating base for minesweepers, Navy commando vessels and helicopters, the sources said. The confrontation with the Iranians occurred only about 15 miles from the barge, one official said.
Iran Repeatedly Warned
Weinberger's harsh words were echoed by the State Department. Spokesman Charles Redman said that the United States has repeatedly warned Iran that it will not tolerate interference with U.S. operations in the gulf.