Revolution#123, March 16, 2008

Anatomy of an Imperialist Fabrication:
Iran’s “Provocation” in the Gulf

Remember the big to-do the U.S. government and capitalist media made in early January about Iranian speedboats supposedly “confronting” and threatening U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf? The incident that Bush condemned as a “provocative act” creating a “dangerous situation”? 

It quickly turned out that the whole thing was at most a minor—if not completely routine—encounter that was deliberately blown all out of proportion by the U.S. government—including through outright fabrication. This incident may have faded from the headlines, but it remains part of the broad narrative which the U.S. rulers are relentlessly promoting (and creating): Iran is a dangerous country run by reckless madmen, which may have to be dealt with by force. Digging into what actually happened shows how the rulers and their media concoct storylines to further their aggressive, imperialist agenda—in this case in the Middle East.

This “story” first hit on Monday, January 7, when a Pentagon spokesperson said there’d been a very serious provocation by Iran in the Persian Gulf’s Straits of Hormuz. Five Iranian speedboats had supposedly come at three U.S. warships (on a routine patrol) in a “reckless and dangerous” manner. The boats purportedly dropped boxes into the water that could have been filled with “explosives.” Meanwhile, an Iranian was supposedly heard on the radio warning, “I am coming to you. You will explode after a few minutes.” The Pentagon claimed that the U.S. ships were so concerned that they were a “heartbeat” from firing in self-defense.

This storyline quickly blared across TV networks, radio news, and newspaper headlines. On January 7 NBC reported: “U.S.: Iran Boats Harassed Warships.” The next day, the Washington Post’s headline read: “In ‘Serious’ Provocation, Iranian Boats Charge U.S. Navy Ships.” The New York Times followed suit with “Iranian Boats Confront U.S. In Persian Gulf.” TV and cable news were even more unrestrained—the tone of Fox News coverage in particular gave the impression that the U.S. had been attacked by Iran.

Top administration officials quickly amplified this storyline. Bush called it “a dangerous situation” and “a provocative act.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Iran should not engage in such provocations,” and issued a warning: “The U.S. is going to defend its interests. It’s going to defend its allies.”

Iranian officials insisted nothing extraordinary had taken place: “That is something normal that takes place every now and then for each party, and it (the problem) is settled after identification of the two parties.” This version of events—which has held up far better to scrutiny than the U.S. claims—was largely buried or treated with suspicion by the U.S. media and never set the tone for the coverage.

As the Bush regime’s rhetoric escalated, its story was collapsing point by point.

• Sequence of Events Reveals Exaggeration & Lies. The Gulf incident had actually taken place early Sunday, January 6, Washington time. But, as Gareth Porter reports, “no information was released to the public about the incident for more than 24 hours, indicating that it was not viewed initially as being very urgent” and “not that different from many others in the Gulf over more than a decade.” For instance, a December 19 encounter in which a U.S. ship did fire a warning shot at a small Iranian boat barely made any ripple in the media. (AP, 1/11/08)

The Navy released the first account of the incident early in the morning on January 7, but treated it as a relatively routine encounter. According to Porter, “Following standard procedures, [USS] Hopper issued warnings, attempted to establish communications with the small boats, and conducted evasive maneuvering.” There was no mention of radio threats, dangerous objects dropped in the water, or the U.S. vessels being on the verge of firing. Those claims were first raised at the briefing later that day by Bryan Whitman, in charge of Pentagon media relations. Then, on January 9, the Pentagon released a Navy video supposedly corroborating the Pentagon’s claims, which included audio of someone saying, “I am coming to you. You will explode after a few minutes.” 

Porter reports that the decision on the content of Whitman’s press briefing and the video released “was made by top officials of the Defense Department.” In other words, it was a political decision based on U.S. imperialists’ objectives.

• The Audio Fabrication. It was soon shown that the most provocative part of the “incident”—the audio threats—had actually been recorded separately and spliced into the video footage by the Pentagon. The recording didn’t have any of the background—or “ambient”—noise that would have accompanied a radio transmission from a speeding boat. And the audio came over a radio channel known for “chatter” and verbal taunts for years.

An Iranian writing on the Huffington Post wrote about the supposed audio threat on the Pentagon video: “the person speaking doesn’t have an Iranian accent and moreover, sounds more like Boris Karloff in a horror movie than a sailor in the elite branch of Iran’s military.” A former Navy officer blogged on The New York Times (1/10): “All ships at sea use a common UHF frequency, Channel 16, also known as ‘bridge-to-bridge’ radio.... But over in the Gulf, Ch. 16 is like a bad CB radio. Everybody and their brother is on it; chattering away....esp. in that section of the Gulf, slurs/threats/chatter/etc. is commonplace.”

Damning questions were raised so quickly that the Navy was forced to admit that it couldn’t verify who was actually making the “threats” or whether they were connected to the Iranian speedboats: “It could have been a threat aimed at some other nation or a myriad of other things.”

• The U.S.’s Own Video Disproved Its Story. The video released by the Pentagon—which showed some four minutes of a 20-30 minute incident—did not show any “boxes” in the water, nor did it show Iranian ships approaching any closer to the U.S. ships than 100 yards, much less “making a run on U.S. ships,” as CBS had reported. Gareth Porter reports, however, that “The only boat that was close enough to be visible to the U.S. ships was unarmed, as an enlarged photo of the boat from the navy video clearly shows.”

Meanwhile, an Iranian video released the day after the Pentagon version showed an uncontested, routine interaction, without any provocation. The radio recording Iran released also pointed to a routine interchange: “‘Coalition warship number 73, this is an Iranian navy patrol boat,’ a man’s voice said in heavily accented English. ‘This is coalition warship number 73 operating in international waters,’ an American voice replied.” (AP 1/11)

• The Evaporating “Threat.” By January 11, these exposures had forced the Pentagon to backpedal from its initial story. “‘No one in the military has said that the transmission emanated from those boats,’ said [Pentagon spokesman Geoff] Morrell,” Porter reports. “The commanding officer of the guided missile cruiser Port Royal, Capt. David Adler, dismissed the Pentagon’s story that he had felt threatened by the dropping of white boxes in the water....Adler said, ‘I saw them float by. They didn’t look threatening to me.’”

These revelations show that the Bush regime deliberately concocted a narrative of the events in the Persian Gulf in order to build its so-called “case” that Iran is a dangerous, irrational country, run by reckless madmen who are capable of provoking war. The unstated conclusion that people are supposed to get from this story is that the U.S. may well have to resort to military force to stop Iran.

The major U.S. media has continued to cooperate fully with all this. Even those media outlets which exposed some holes in the U.S. story never “connected the dots” and showed that the whole Pentagon narrative had been fabricated. And one question which was NEVER raised by the bourgeois media was: who is really threatening whom? What gives the U.S. the “right” to station its heavily armed warships 20-30 miles off Iran’s coast? What would the U.S. response be if Iranian warships sailed that close to the U.S.?

Buried in one Washington Post story was the following: “The U.S. presence in the Gulf’s international waters is a sensitive issue in Iran because the USS Vincennes, another Aegis cruiser, shot down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, killing all 290 people on board. The United States at first contended that it was a warplane and then said that it was outside the civilian air corridor and did not respond to radio calls. Both were untrue, and the radio calls were made on military frequencies to which the airliner did not have access.”

But such facts appearing in the media are isolated, secondary exceptions to what the U.S. has done many times before and is doing in relationship to Iran: shameless lying and manufacturing “provocations” and “threats” in order to justify imperialist aggression.

At the January 10 Republican presidential debate, the moderators asked every candidate about the “confrontation” in the Gulf and if they thought the Navy commander on the scene acted forcefully enough or whether he should have opened fire on the Iranians. Only libertarian Ron Paul even raised questions about what had actually taken place. And none of the Democratic contenders have questioned the Pentagon’s version of events—much less exposed the U.S.’s provocations against Iran.

So Iran’s “reckless” actions in the Gulf have now become part of the “common wisdom,” the accepted “documented record.” And meanwhile, the U.S. is also creating a hyped, if not fabricated, “documented record” concerning Iran’s nuclear program. The National Intelligence Estimate released by the U.S. last December said that while Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program now, it did have one until 2003. The claim that Iran had a nuclear weapons program can hardly be taken at face value, coming from the same “intelligence community” that produced the hoax about Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.” But the supposed “fact” that Iran was trying to develop nukes (and that it might resume the program) is now part of justifying more sanctions and continuing threats by the U.S.

Iran continues to be in the U.S. crosshairs. And such concocted stories aren’t harmless—they are part of the groundwork of lies the U.S. would use to try and justify an attack on Iran. The U.S. rulers are playing with the lives of many thousands—perhaps millions. Their provocations have the potential to spin beyond their control and end up triggering war, whether intended or not.

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