The US Fifth Fleet and US aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower in the Gulf of Oman were not allowed to shoot at an Iranian Fokker F27 aircraft which on April 21 hovered for 20 minutes 900 meters over the carrier and no more than 250 meters away, even though they saw its flight crew gathering intelligence on the Eisenhower and its warship escorts.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that the US Persian Gulf command went public on the incident on April 28, a whole week later, only after Gulf military circles, amazed at the American naval and air units' passivity in the face of hostile surveillance, threatened to break the story to local media.
This striking restraint indicates that the US Gulf and Arabian fleets are under orders to take no action – certainly not to open fire – against Iranian naval or air units, with first obtaining permission directly from Washington.
Military, naval and aviation sources told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the Iranian spy plane was 10 second away from flying directly over the Eisenhower and could easily have been shot down.
To try and explain this incident away, US naval sources Wednesday, April 28, claimed the Iranian plane was unarmed and its encounter with the US carrier was not of a threatening nature, although irregular.
Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, tried to play down the importance of the incident by saying: "The Iranians (pilots) were not provocative or threatening. As long as they are professional and not threatening or reckless, it's international space."
But officials of the Gulf emirate navies think otherwise. They say it was the first time that an Iranian spy plane ventured so close to an American aircraft carrier and the US non-response will encourage Tehran to go for bolder and more provocative actions.
Of late, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, especially Oman and the United Arab Emirates, have become extra-sensitive of late to the raised US response threshold to threatening moves by Iran, after witnessing the sinking of a South Korean warship and the handling of the case by Washington.
The South Korean Cheonan, a 1,200-ton corvette, was sunk on March 26, apparently by a naval mine that was planted by the North Korean navy in the Baengnyeong Island area, whose sovereignty is in dispute between Seoul and Pyongyang. Right after the incident, in which 46 South Korean sailors were lost, the Obama administration hastened to issue a statement denying evidence of North Korean involvement – even though South Korean intelligence demonstrated that a North Korean mine, or midget submarine of a type of in the possession of the Iranian Navy, was responsible for sinking the corvette.
Undersecretary of State James Steinberg, who deals with Iranian affairs, said on March 29 that he had heard nothing to implicate any other country in the tragedy.
This was taken in Gulf capitals to show the Obama administration was ready to lean backwards to avoid military action against North Korea – even on the part of the injured party, South Korea. They see a close correlation between the provocative tactics employed by Pyongyang and Tehran, whose nuclear and missile programs are likewise coordinated. These Gulf sources, talking to debkafile, wondered out loud if the United States would also turn a blind eye to an Iranian attack that cause the sinking of a Saudi, UAE or Israeli ship sailing in the Gulf.
And another parallel is worth noting: Just as the two Koreas are at odds over the Baengnyeong Islands, so too the UAE claims the owners of three islands near the Straits of Hormuz – Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa – accusing Tehran of seizing them by force for the use of Revolutionary Guard naval bases.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say that the Iranian spy plane that flew over the USS Eisenhower on April 21 apparently took off from an Iranian military airfield on the island of Abu Musa.
Far from giving up their claim to the three islands, on April 20, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahayan said there is no difference between the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, South Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, and Iranian occupation of these islands.