Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Iran Aweigh (Again)

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.


Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books) will be available April 1, 2008.

" A profane and hilarious parody of the post–Cold War navy…Populated by outrageous characters and fueled with pompous outrage, Huber’s irreverent broadside will pummel the funny bone of anyone who’s served." -- Publishers Weekly

"A witty, wacky, wildly outrageous novel that skewers just about anything you’d care to name…a remarkably accomplished book, striking just the right balance between ridicule and insight." -- Booklist


  1. Anonymous2:26 PM


    I hope that this was not taken in theater!

    ADCS USNR-R(thankfully retired!!!)

  2. Anonymous2:29 PM

    Feh Jeff, just because it's a new year, we can't expect better behaviour from this Clown College better known as the Bush Administration. :-)

  3. MME:

    I hope it wasn't taken sober!


    I know, but I like rattling neocon cage. It's so much fun to watch what they do when you enter the room and switch on the lights.


  4. Anonymous3:46 PM

    I like your commentaries but wonder about the "These Iranian boats are typically armed with a single high caliber machinegun …" Don't some of these boats carry a lot more than that? Explosives, mines, even missiles? Otherwise the vaunted swarming attacks couldn't amount to much. Even the biggest boats at the large lake I frequent - and some are pretty big, and fast - crashing into a Navy ship would just leave a cloud of fiberglass bits. Not a deterrent, I should think.

  5. Anonymous4:33 PM

    Back in the 80s, someone had done something to displease the Iranians. A family friend was on a supertanker or similar vessel making its way through the Gulf when an Iranian speedboat approached, and stopped at an ominous distance.

    Said friend saw a man stand up, take out two RPGs and fire them both at the tanker. The speedboat was bobbing so badly that both shots went wild. In retrospect I realize that they could have been proverbial shots across their bows. With Iranian technology being what it was in the 80s, it may also have been a good faith effort. In any event the story never made the press, but was told more than a few times in bars and at BBQs.

  6. G.,

    You make a good point. Keep in mind, though, that any vessel, like any human being, can conceal a bomb or a mine or, as Anonymous suggests, an RPG. That doesn't make every punt a warship, or every child a soldier.


    No disrespected intended to your friends, but stories told in bars and at barbecues are almost as suspect as stories told in the New York Times and the Washington Post. ;-)

  7. Anonymous1:03 AM

    "Back in the 80s, someone had done something to displease the Iranians."

    Could it have been this:

    And this:

    290 civilians dead. Cause for some upset. Wikipedia has quite a bit on this, for instance:

    "Captain David Carlson, commander of the USS Sides, the warship stationed near to the Vincennes at the time of the incident, is reported (Fisk, 2005) to have said that the destruction of the aircraft "marked the horrifying climax to Captain Rogers' aggressiveness, first seen four weeks ago." His comment referred to incidents on June 2, when Rogers had sailed the Vincennes too close to an Iranian frigate undertaking a lawful search of a bulk carrier, launched a helicopter within 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) of an Iranian small craft despite rules of engagement requiring a four-mile (6.4 km) separation, and opened fire on a number of small Iranian military boats. Of those incidents, Carlson commented, "Why do you want an Aegis cruiser out there shooting up boats? It wasn't a smart thing to do." At the time of Rogers' announcement to higher command that he was going to shoot down the plane, Carlson is reported (Fisk, 2005) to have been thunderstruck: "I said to folks around me, 'Why, what the hell is he doing?' I went through the drill again. F-14. He’s climbing. By now this damn thing is at 7,000 feet."

    The Iranians remember this, and might have a
    different idea about harrassment and provocation.

  8. It's just like "heavy shelling," "intense fire-fight," and "on the offensive"--terms that signify more of a need by the author for "punch" than analysis.

    In my experience:

    Punch Reality
    ====== ========
    "heavy shelling" harassing fire
    "intense fire-fight" someone
    their weapon
    "on the offensive" security
    patrol looking
    to catch some

  9. G,

    I made myself real unpopular at TACTRAGRUPAC around 1992 when I asked what Captain Rogers thought an F-14, and air to air platform, was going to do to his ship.


    Don't forget "preemptive deterrence," which is a murky way of saying offensive defense.


  10. Anonymous8:07 AM

    This anecdote predated the Vincennes episode, which occurred after the cessation of hostilities.

    The Vincennes and its commander had a long history of abrasive behavior in the Gulf and of looking to pick fights. When a passenger plane was finally shot down, Brits in Dubai's ATC, people who'd have had every reason to sympathize with the US, leaked stories about the Vincennes' previous antics in the area to Robert Fisk. Fisk discovered that the Times of London, for whom he then wrote, would not publish a story deeply embarrassing to Britain's closest ally. So the story ran in an Irish paper. This is described in Fisk's phenomenal "The Great War for Civilization." Fisk isn't fair and balanced in the fox news sense of the word; any American who wishes to understand Arab grievances, both very real and only perceived, against the West probably can't do any better.

    I'm an American who spent parts of the 70s, 80s, and 90s on the southern littoral of the Gulf. My dad heard this story in his office from a man that he knew to be on tankers at the time. Friends of our family were already socializing with the US fleet in the Gulf in the 50s and 60s. My dad had planned to visit an oilfield on the day it was bombed.

    The GCC states funded Saddam's Iraq because they wanted to see Iran kept in check, and then funded Iran to avoid Iranian reprisals. The Iranians would send F-4 phantoms deep into GCC airspace when a check was outstanding and also fund subversion, particularly in Bahrain, which denies its Shi'a minority equal civil rights. I've been told by a Westerner there in the 70s that Bahrain encouraged Iranian Shi'as to settle there in the 70s as an antidote to the radicalism then to be found in its Sunnis, who were enthused by Arab Socialism and its goal of ridding the area of conservative strains of Islam and of the monarchies. Saddam that emanated from Saddam's Iraq, and then denied them equal civil rights. This policy of funding both sides coincided with US policy of hobbling both Iran and Iraq. It seems that every attempt in recent years to take Iraq down a few notches has resulted in Iran's ascendancy.

    There was a cold and somewhat covert war going on between the GCC nations (Gulf nations) and Iran at the time. Whenever the Iranians got particularly annoyed, they'd shoot up tankers; the Iraqis would then return the favor and even managed to bomb an Iranian oil platform that was beyond the range of their Mirages, even with drop tanks, officially without landing anywhere to refuel. After the war, I read that Navy Seals had been quietly stymieing Iran's attempts to mine the Gulf. And then there was Iran-Contra.

    I vividly remember my dad telling me how he was at an airfield when an Iranian Tiger (F-5) asked for permission to land at the field, and the began his approach before he got permission, obviously wanting to defect. To avoid a diplomatic crisis, the control tower immediately responded that they were moving loaded fuel trucks to the beginning, end, and middle of the runway, and actually did so. When I asked my dad what became of the pilot, he replied that the pilot presumably reported "navigational problems" to his CO.

    I also remember sailors on the USS LaSalle, the flagship of the US fleet in the Gulf, telling me how they sweated when they transited the Straits of Hormuz, and showed me what they called the "stinger mount" where they had a sailor with a stinger missile on his shoulder scanning the horizon day and night as they transited the Straits.

    Awesome memories, but I'm glad I'm not there, and am not expected to explain why the liberation of Iraq was moral and in their interests to my friends from those days. All I can say is that in that part of the world, if something makes the news, it's probably true, but more often than not the exact opposite will also be true at the same time.

  11. Great stuff, Anon. Thanks much for sharing it with us.



  12. I got a look at some AP footage of the supposed "provocation."


    1) The speed boats looked more like they were engaged in defensive tactics than they were on simulated "attack" runs.

    2) Two of them nearly collide toward the end!

    P.S. Oh, yes! Preemptive deterrence--the definition of utter redundancy. Always good for a giggle . . .

  13. Anonymous2:52 PM

    dropping in here to say i follow your blog, love both content and style. very useful against "milbots", my fresh-coined term for members of the military, retired or active, for whom the US can never, ever, do anything wrong, and always, ever, has an excuse. this column a superb example of said usefulness.

  14. Thanks for stopping by and posting, Petey. Please visit us again.



  15. Anonymous1:35 AM


    Thanks for the excellent analysis as usual. Look at this boat right here: http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/files/photos/7/76a7b34e-7781-451c-b216-add2cf30f4bb.html?SITE=PAYOK&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

    First, this one doesn't even have a mounted gun as you said in the article. Secondly, how can anyone make radio calls from these boats? I see no antenna, and I have a hard time thinking someone standing, could make a radio call with that calm-steady voice with NO BACKGROUND NOISE that we heard in the Pentagon footage.

  16. Anonymous2:14 PM


    Did you see the latest?


    Is Maxwell Smart in charge at the Pentagon?

  17. WK,

    Yeah. Isn't that something. The Schmooze in Hormuz is growing legs, isn't it?


  18. Anonymous1:03 AM

    Dear Jeff

    It should be noted that 'The Australian' is owned by ex-Australian Rupert Murdoch (he gave up his Oz citizenship in order to buy into the American media: he's now dumped his 2nd wife (Australian) to marry a much younger Chinese woman who has given him 2 daughters so far, which jibes well with his new forays into Asian media. (It's well known that Rupert would screw a snake if there was a buck in it.)

    Just a little bg.

    As always keep up the great work Commander.


  19. Thanks for the info (and reminder), Oze.

    The trouble, as I see it, is that it's getting harder every day to tell the news outlets Murdoch owns from the ones he doesn't. ;-)


  20. Anonymous6:56 PM

    There is something about this incident that reminds me of....Tonkin Gulf.

    Left Coast

  21. LC,

    You and a lot of other people. Gareth Porter should have some more stuff on this early next week.


  22. Anonymous11:43 AM

    The threat to the ships was broadcast on VHF16, the international hailing and distress frequency. Am I to believe that the Navy does not have equipment in the ships' CICs that automatically records, DFs and triangulates the source? Even the Coast Guard small boat stations have that capability here stateside, and that equipment is operated by cililian VOLUNTEER Coast Guard Auxiliarists in many cases. Couple that with the lack of background noise in the threat transmission and the Bela Lugosi impression nature of the accent, I cannot rule out the possibility that someone on one of the ships made the transmission from a handheld VHF transceiver bought at a local Boater's World or West Marine. On how many levels am I supposed to suspend my disbelief and buy into this?

    Best regards,
    ADCS USNR-R(ret)

  23. Anonymous2:18 PM


  24. MeMyselfEye
    ADCS USNR-R(ret)
    I'm with you on that. It's akin to watching one of those thriller movies where it takes 3 minutes for the cops to trace a call.

    To all - After watching the following video it is apparent that it was a poke mission. That is to say that the US ship was poking the defenses of the Iranian Navy to see their response. Used to happen all the time with the USSR and USA Air Forces. Except now the MSM uses it to stir up passion by way of false propaganda.

    The video from the Iranian News Agency as seen from one of the Iranian Patrol boats

    Tonkin Gulf to Persian Gulf, the American Puklik will eat that crap right up.


  25. Anonymous9:08 AM


    With the present top-down, micromanaged admin/press interface, I just cannot believe that this piece of fictional video was not released without White House involvement.

  26. IV,

    Gareth Porter has traced it back as far as Whitman, methinks it reeks of Cheney.

  27. How The Pentagon Planted a False Story http://www.antiwar.com/porter/?articleid=12221

  28. Thanks for the link, Human. I was going to get around to it eventually.

    Good old Porter, eh? He's done some nice work in the past year or so.


  29. I never read him before.

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