WASHINGTON - Five Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats harassed and provoked three US Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route off the Iranian coast, during the weekend, Pentagon officials said on Monday.
The captain of one of the US ships was in the process of giving an order to fire but the order was not implemented as the Iranian boats then moved away, one official said.
The official said the five Iranian speedboats "pretty much swarmed" the three US vessels in international waters with the Iranians threatening that one of the US ships would blow up in minutes.
US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, were confirming a report first aired by CNN.
Oil prices got a brief boost from the news about the confrontation as dealers weighed the threat to oil shipments along the key shipping route. Crude futures jumped 49 cents to $98.40 a barrel before slipping back into negative territory.
The incident took place about 11:00 pm EST on Sunday, or late Saturday night in Washington, the officials said.
According to the officials, the radio transmission from one of the Iranian ships said: "I am coming at you. You will explode in a couple of minutes."
The officials said it was not unusual for Iranian boats to get close to US ships in the strait but the radio transmission was unusual.
The officials said the Iranian vessels also dropped small white boxes into the water. It was not clear what the boxes contained.
One official said the move may have been an attempt to ascertain what tactics the US ships would use if objects were dropped into the strait.
In October, the United States designated the Revolutionary Guard Corps a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and its elite Qods force a supporter of terrorism.
The incident occurred on the eve of a visit to the Middle East by US President George W. Bush, who said last week that one of the aims of his trip was to counter Iran's ambitions in the region.
Washington has been engaged in a long standoff with Tehran over Iran's nuclear program.
In March, Iran seized 15 British sailors and marines in the Gulf and accused them of trespassing in Iranian territory while they inspected a merchant vessel. London maintained the British personnel were in Iraqi waters.
The British personnel were held for almost two weeks before being freed.
In Tehran, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman had no immediate comment on US accounts of the incident in the Strait of Hormuz.