A dangerous game of chicken

Something happened Sunday morning in the Hormuz Strait involving three U.S. Navy warships and five Iranian high-speed small boats. And we have two strikingly different versions of what took place.

There is the Iranian Foreign Ministry version, which is that nothing happened. The ministry’s chief spokesman said it was “something normal that takes place every now and then” and was quickly resolved “once the two sides recognized each other.”

The Pentagon said the five boats “charged” at the Navy vessels, throwing boxes in their path, thus forcing them to change course, and that this constituted “reckless, dangerous and potentially hostile intent.”

The Pentagon says the U.S. ships were about to fire — a not unreasonable course of action considering the 2000 suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole — when the five boats veered off. The Pentagon says one of the boats radioed a threat to the effect that “we’re coming at you and you’ll explode in a couple of minutes.”

The incident comes at what may be a pivotal point in U.S.-Iranian relations. The two countries are at an impasse over Iran’s nuclear program and one reason for President Bush’s Mideast trip is to firm up support in the region for tougher sanctions against Iran.

At the same time, however, Iran seems to have made some effort to stem the flow of weapons into Iraq and has reined in Moktada al-Sadr’s Shia army in Iraq. And last week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in what seemed to be a signal to whoever is the next president, said that he could see restored relations between the United States and Iran.

This disconnect raises a scary possibility. One part of the Iranian government may not have known — and didn’t approve of when it found out — what another part of the Iranian government is up to. The boats are believed to belong to the Revolutionary Guard, an autonomous military and security branch recently designated a terrorist organization by the Bush administration. It was the Guard’s navy that seized 15 British sailors and Marines last March while they were inspecting ships in Persian Gulf international waters.

The harassment of the three ships may have more to do with internal Iranian politics than anything the U.S. Navy did. The danger is that in playing this game the Guard may try to find how far it can go in provoking American warships — and that one day it’ll find out.