Iran Aweigh (Again)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Jeff Huber 

The story of the incident between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz Monday morning may tell us more about the nature of today's news reporting than about the prospects for war and peace in the Middle East.

Veteran military reporter Robert Burns's account of the incident for the Associated Press opened with a bang:

An Iranian fleet of boats charged at and threatened to blow up a three-ship U.S. Navy convoy passing near Iranian waters and then fled as American commanders were preparing to open fire.

The lead paragraph by Andrew Grey of Reuters sounded eerily similar:

Iranian boats aggressively approached three U.S. Naval ships in the Strait of Hormuz, a main shipping route for Gulf oil, at the weekend and threatened that the ships would explode, U.S. officials said on Monday.

Even more alarming was the top of the article in The Australian:

A Pentagon official said that US forces were "literally" on the verge of firing on the Iranian boats as they passed through the strategic Strait of Hormuz, and had moved to man their guns when the Iranians turned and sped away.

A Confederacy of Dissemblers

What we know of the incident so far comes from official and mostly unnamed sources who were nowhere in the vicinity of the Strait, and comes filtered through journalists who often don't seem to know what they're talking about. Much of the reportage is also conspicuously contradictory.

The Australian's statement that "U.S. forces were 'literally' on the verge of firing on the Iranian boats" and "had moved to man their guns when the Iranians turned and sped away" is a prime example of every flaw in the narrative. If U.S. forces were just then moving to man their guns as the Iranians turned and sped away, they were closer to the verge of sleep than of firing on anybody. Those guns, almost certainly 50 caliber machine guns placed on the American ships' weather decks, were either manned when the ships set condition Zebra prior to entering the Strait or those skippers will be handing their command pins over to the three-star in command of Fifth Fleet by the end of next week. It's disheartening but not unexpected that the reporter didn't know that, that some source in the Navy told him the story that way, and that despite the deliberate artificial tension in the narrative, nobody in the scenario was on the verge of firing on anybody else: literally, figuratively or conceivably.

That consideration certainly should have crossed the mind of an experienced hand like Robert Burns, but his comment that the Iranians "fled as American commanders were preparing to open fire" was on the same order of disingenuousness. Burns attributed the remark to Vice Admiral Kevin J. Cosgriff, the Fifth Fleet commander, but he doesn't quote Cosgriff directly, which gives him a license to (ahem) dramatize a bit. Speaking of drama, Burns's term "Iranian fleet" is hardly anything anyone with the least experience of naval matters would use to describe what the Iranians actually sent into the Strait, which was a squadron of five speedboats.

And when I say "speedboat," folks, I'm not talking about a small frigate, or even something the size of PT 109. I'm talking about the kind of boat you see on American lakes every summer pulling sunburned water skiers around. These Iranian boats are typically armed with a single high caliber machine gun, which is, to put it placidly, a darn sight less weaponry than U.S. combatant ships carry. It sounds to me like the "white box-like objects" the speedboats dropped into the water were Little Rascals technology simulations of mines, painted a bright color for the express purpose of ensuring the Americans saw them and steered around them.

Scary, Huh Kids?

The Australian quotes an unnamed "Pentagon official" as saying that "It is the most serious provocation of this sort that we’ve seen yet." The paper recounts the claim of a "Pentagon spokesman" that the Iranian boats were operating at "distances and speeds that showed reckless and dangerous intent – reckless, dangerous and potentially hostile intent". The Australian identified the spokesman as one Bryan Whitman, but it didn't mention what Bryan Whitman does in the Pentagon or how he came to be a spokesman for it.

It happens that one Bryan Whitman is the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, which makes him part of the Office of Strategic Influence (AKA Ministry of Truth) apparatus that Donald Rumsfeld established to support his wars through misinformation, disinformation, and psychological operations. One of Whitman's most notable contributions to the cause was his attempted whitewashing of the Pentagon's Jessica Lynch hoax.

And from whom are we getting the cockamamie account of the U.S. ships preparing to fire just as the Iranians turned and high tailed it? Reuters' Andrew Gray pretty much coughed up a confession:

"Pentagon officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said after the Iranian threats a U.S. captain was in the process of ordering sailors to open fire when the Iranian boats moved away."

Pentagon officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. Jesus, Larry and Curly. How long will the big media allow these yahooligans to use it as a propaganda venue?

According to Burns, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini played down the incident, calling it, "…something normal that takes place every now and then for each party." And Defense Secretary Robert Gates allowed as how there had been two or three similar incidents—"maybe not quite as dramatic"—over the past year, but he offered no details.

So who knows what exactly happened in the Strait Monday morning? I sure don't, but I'll tell you something I do know. U.S. and Iranian naval units have been playing patty cake in the Strait and the Persian Gulf with each other since the tanker wars of the 1980s. I can't count offhand how many times I ran the Strait of Hormuz scenario during the 90s, in tabletop experiments, computer simulations, live play exercises and real world operations. The skippers and crews of the American warships had to have been prepared for what they saw on Monday. Granted, when it's really you transiting the real Straits with five real Iranian speedboats making a run at you, that's a bona fide pucker patrol; and it appears that the U.S. crews conducted every step of the operation by the letter.

Still, back in my day, we called that sort of thing "free training." After all the helmets and fire hoses were put away, we reckoned we'd had a jolly old time, trading love taps with gloves and headgear on, and suspected that the other guys considered the whole thing to be good clean fun too.

So like Bhutto's assassination, the Turks bombing of the Kurds, and other recent fiascos, Monday's incident in the Strait of Hormuz was worth noting as yet another example of how far American policy has run adrift under the Bush administration's stewardship.

But it was nothing to take to your backyard fallout shelter over.

Freelance writer Jeff Huber was operations officer of a naval air wing and an aircraft carrier, and he commanded an E-2C Hawkeye aircraft squadron. His analyses of military and foreign policy affairs have appeared in Proceedings, The Navy, Jane's Fighting Ships, and other print periodicals. Some of his essays have been required student reading at the U.S. Naval War College, where he received a master's degree in national security studies in 1995.  Jeff is a contributing editor with ePluribus Media. His home website is Pen and Sword.


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