Strait of tensions

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

The guided missile cruiser USS Port Royal, one of the three U.S. Navy ships allegedly involved in a near-battle incident with Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz. - REUTERS

The guided missile cruiser USS Port Royal, one of the three U.S. Navy ships allegedly involved in a near-battle incident with Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz. - REUTERS

The Bush administration goes to town on a non-incident in the Strait of Hormuz in order to heighten tensions with Iran.

The guided missile

THE George W. Bush administration made a dramatic claim in the first week of January that Iranian naval speedboats had threatened United States Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz. The Pentagon claimed that the big U.S. warships that were under threat were moments away from opening fire on the tiny Iranian speedboats. The American media were quick to parrot the administrations version of events. Senior U.S. officials claimed that a battle at sea had narrowly been averted and put all the blame on the Iranian side. Things could have taken an ugly turn if the U.S. Navy had taken precipitate steps. Iranians still remember the downing of a civilian airliner by the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The U.S. authorities released a video on the Strait of Hormuz incident, which was headline news in all American news channels. The so-called incident took place just before President Bush went on his highly publicised tour of West Asia in early January. He warned that there would be serious consequences if Iran attacked U.S. ships. The U.S. National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley, said that the incident almost involved an exchange of fire between our forces and the Iranian forces. Israel, Americas staunchest ally in the region, has been urging the Bush administration to use the military option against Iran. In the third week of January, Israel tested a new nuclear-capable missile, which could target Iran.

The American naval armada has been present in force in the strategically important Strait of Hormuz for the past couple of years in a bid to build up military pressure on Iran in the ongoing confrontation between the two countries. American ships are hovering near the Iranian coastline, constantly posing a threat to the Islamic republics strategic interests. A lot of oil and gas meant for the Western market pass through the Strait. All ships have to pass through this narrow strip of water to enter the Persian Gulf. In the unlikely eventuality of hostilities ever erupting between the West and Iran, the area around the Strait of Hormuz will see a lot of action. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, had made an attempt to control the Strait of Hormuz at the beginning of its eight-year war with Iran.

It did not take much time for the real story about the latest incident in the Strait of Hormuz to unravel. American naval officers have contradicted the initial reports from the Pentagon accusing the Iranians of aggressive behaviour. They have told the American media that there was no serious threat from the speedboats, which were on a routine mission, and that no U.S. commander was on the verge of issuing orders to sink the Iranian boats. The Commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, told the media that at no point of time did he perceive a threat from the speedboats. The U.S. Navy Command is known to have reservations about starting a war with Iran on one pretext or the other. Admiral William Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command, had told the Al Jazeera channel in August last year that the constant drumbeat of conflict with Iran is not helpful or useful. I expect that there will be no war and that is what we are working for.

The video that the Pentagon released to the media seems to have been a doctored one as an audio tape in which threats against the three U.S. warships were made was superimposed on the video. Iran released a video of the incident that showed an Iranian officer asking his American counterpart to identify himself. This is routine naval procedure. But the Pentagon chose to highlight threats made by a third party. This individual has been known to listen into radio traffic between ships in the Gulf and chip in with his own banter. In shipping circles, he has been given the nickname Filipino Monkey. This was the same voice that had threatened to blow up the U.S. ships.

The American media have observed that in the tape released by the U.S. authorities there is no sound of the motors of the speedboats or of the sea. Besides, as pictures released by the U.S. authorities themselves have shown, the Iranian boat nearest to the U.S. ship was clearly unarmed. The speedboats usually carry two or three persons and are armed only with machine guns, which do not pose a threat to the huge warships bristling with high-tech weaponry. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the U.S. had lost face and should apologise to the region and the American people for exaggerating a routine incident.

American military planners are known to be wary about Iranian military capabilities at sea. The U.S. military concluded after its war games of 2002 simulating a U.S.-Iran war, conducted after Washington started upping the ante against Teheran, that its aircraft carriers and other ships in the Gulf were particularly vulnerable to attacks from small speedboats fitted with missiles, in case hostilities broke out.

Many American commentators have drawn parallels between the Strait of Hormuz incident and the notorious Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to Americas escalation of its war against Vietnam and subsequent defeat. In the first week of August 1964, in two separate incidents, U.S. Navy ships USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy, patrolling near the coast of North Vietnam, claimed that they had intercepted signals that indicated that they were about to be attacked. This provided the excuse the U.S. administration needed at that time to start a full-fledged war against Vietnam. A U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) report released in 1995 acknowledged that it was USS Maddox that fired first. Another NSA report released recently said that the second incident in the Gulf of Tonkin had never taken place.

One of the

During his visit to West Asia, Bush kept harping on the so-called Strait of Hormuz incident and the dangers posed by Iran to the region. He also kept reiterating that all options were on the table against Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has accused President Bush of sending a message of confrontation during his visit to the region.

The U.S. Presidents plan to destabilise Iran suffered a setback when the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) poured cold water on U.S. claims that Iran was pursuing an advanced nuclear programme. The non-incident in the Strait of Hormuz has given Bush another opportunity to pursue his tirade against Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Berlin in the third week of January to meet with her West European counterparts, also had Iran on top of her agenda. But indications are that the Europeans are getting increasingly sceptical about Bushs West Asia policy, especially regarding Iran. The Iranian Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs, Dawood Danesh Jafari, who was on a visit to New Delhi in the third week of January, told the media that West European countries had been queuing up in recent months to buy Iranian oil and gas.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, on a recent visit to China, urged his hosts to stop doing business with Iran and join the West in imposing sanctions on it. A few days after the Strait of Hormuz incident, the U.S. Navy announced that a U.S. ship had fired a warning shot over an Iranian naval boat in December last year. The Iranian boat had allegedly come very close to an American ship. With tensions again running high, the threat of an accidental war is keeping many people in the region on a razor edge.

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