DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Western analysts were puzzled Friday by the previous night's clash between Iranian and American forces in the Persian Gulf since, they said, the Iranians had previously gone out of their way to avoid confrontation with the number of foreign warships that has been growing slowly in the region over the past four months.
Iran gave its version of the Thursday night encounter, in which U.S. military helicopters and Iranian gunboats exchanged fire and at least one of the Iranian craft was sunk.
According to an account by the Pentagon, the Iranians opened fire at a U.S. observation helicopter, which summoned help from helicopter gunships operating nearby. The helicopters fired on the Iranian boats, sinking one and disabling two others. A fourth boat escaped in the darkness.
Iran Denies Firing First
The Iranian press agency IRNA denied Friday that its gunboats had been the first to open fire and asserted that in the clash, its gunboats had brought down a U.S. helicopter and damaged a nearby American warship with light missiles.
U.S. military spokesmen in Washington and Bahrain quickly denied that U.S. helicopters or warships in the gulf sustained any damage.
IRNA said five boats were involved in the incident, during what it described as a "routine patrol in international waters" when they were attacked by the helicopters near Farsi Island, an Iranian base in the north-central part of the gulf.
The news agency quoted an unnamed "informed military source" as saying the crews of the gunboats did not know at first that they had been attacked by U.S. helicopters. The source also "totally rejected a U.S. claim that the Iranian boats had first fired at the American helicopters and said it was just the opposite," the agency reported.
The gunboats responded, IRNA claimed, and a helicopter was hit by a U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missile, crashing into the sea.
'Declaration of War'
At the United Nations, Iran's ambassador Said Rajaie-Khorassani told reporters the American action in the gulf was "a declaration of war by the United States."
Rajaie-Khorassani contended that the incident originated when an American boat, "which had no business being there," approached Iranian boats near Farsi Island.
"The Iranian boats were targeted by American helicopters," the ambassador said. "The American boat was damaged, one helicopter was shot down and three Iranian boats were sunk. This was a blatant violation of international law.
"They have started a very dangerous game," he added. "We have always acted according to international law and have used restraint to our utmost ability. The stain of American blood has never been on our hands."
Asked if the Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the recent planting of mines in the Persian Gulf conformed with international law, the envoy replied: "On the hostages, that was within our understanding of international law. As for the mines, we are denying that. However, we have every right to lay mines in the way of any ships that help Iraq."
Western observers in the gulf area said they did not believe that Thursday's incident represented a change in Iranian strategy. One analyst speculated that the Revolutionary Guards who apparently manned the gunboats may have acted independently, finding the sight of an American helicopter an irresistible target, especially in light of the political indoctrination that such troops receive concerning the "Great Satan," as the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini refers to the United States.
After U.S. forces in the gulf seized an Iranian navy ship, the Iran Ajr, laying mines in the waters near Bahrain on Sept. 21, the Iranians began a propaganda barrage denying American accusations that Tehran's forces were laying mines in the gulf.
Western analysts discount both the propaganda and the events that inspired it, asserting that Iran appears to want to avoid a confrontation in the gulf at this time.
One analyst said that a major debate seemed to be under way in Tehran about whether to accept a modified version of a U.N. Security Council resolution, drafted on July 20, calling for a cease-fire in the seven-year-old Iran-Iraq War.
"It's a traumatic and brutal battle," said one analyst of the debate among the Tehran leadership. "There is a strong, increasingly coherent elite which has never been compatible with the war."
The analysts base their belief that a fundamental rethinking of policy may be under way in Tehran on two factors, the decision of West European nations--Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium--to send naval forces to the gulf and the condemnation of Iran in the Muslim world following the rioting among Iranian pilgrims to the holy city of Mecca on July 31 that killed 402 people.
Times staff writer Don Shannon, at the United Nations, contributed to this story.