Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Could this be Tonkin redux in the Strait of Hormuz?

It is much too early to make a formal assessment of the incident early on Sunday in which five suspected Iranian Republican Guards Corps “attack boats” “harassed” US Navy vessels in international waters close to the Strait of Hormuz. But already, as the details trickle in, we can begin to lay out hypotheses.

One element that stands out is the lack of corroborating information and the one-sidedness of the reporting on the incident, with an anonymous source in the Pentagon, a spokesperson and CNN providing the bulk of the story. No coordinates are given to tell us whether the US vessels were clearly in international waters or sufficiently close to Iranian waters as to constitute a provocative act. Furthermore, the transcript of the communications between the Navy and the IRGC vessels — this we must take on faith, as nothing has been provided to prove that these were, indeed, of the IRGC — has not been made public, so it remains impossible to ascertain the nature of the “threatening” language (was it English?) used by the Iranians, which could very well be a mistranslation (if it wasn't English), as has often occurred with speeches by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

News coverage to date has been limited to Reuters and AFP, whose wire copy has been mostly quotes from a report on CNN. Iranian authorities have yet to comment on the matter, and major Middle Eastern media, including al-Jazeera, have nothing on the incident.

So did it really happen? Or is this just a fabrication, or a series of errors and misjudgments, just as occurred in the Gulf on Tonkin in August 1964, which provided the US with the argument it needed to attack North Vietnam? It is also interesting that such an incident would occur amid news that the US may be on the brink of recession. As history has demonstrated, states have an inclination to look abroad whenever trouble brews domestically and to deflect the attention from themselves onto an “enemy.” It is no secret, either, that Washington has for a long time now sought an argument to pound Iran — even after an US intelligence assessment argued that Tehran had long abandoned its nuclear weapons program.

All the above are but hypotheses and may yet be proven wrong as more details are made public. Conspiracy? A warning to George W. Bush as he prepares to visit the region? Fabrication? Blunder? At the moment, all are possible. But this one has all the hallmarks of a US administration that once again is asking us to trust it.

Stay tuned.

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