Who's threatening who in the Gulf?

Nicole Colson reports that U.S. claims about an Iranian "provocation" in the Strait of Hormuz are full of holes.

THE U.S. government's claim that Iran is to blame for a "provocative" confrontation between U.S. warships and Iranian speedboats in the Persian Gulf last week is falling apart.

The Bush administration and the U.S. media immediately declared that a "battle at sea" had been narrowly averted after the Iranian boats threatened to attack the U.S. ships. But the reality that emerged in the days that followed is that the U.S. was the "provocative" side in the showdown.

According to the U.S., five armed Iranian speedboats--apparently belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy--approached three U.S. Navy warships in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz January 7.

The Iranians allegedly made "aggressive" maneuvers and threatened that the U.S. ships would be blown up. The confrontation was said to have lasted approximately 30 minutes, and ended without any shots being fired.

Pentagon officials told the press that the commander of a Navy destroyer involved in the episode had been on the verge of firing on at least one of the Iranian speedboats when it pulled to within 200 yards of the U.S. ship. According to an unnamed Pentagon official quoted by ABC News, the Iranian boats "were a heartbeat from being blown up."

Defense Department and military officials released video of the incident, along with a radio threat that the American ships would explode. "I am coming at you, and you will explode in a few minutes," were the words of an alleged verbal warning broadcast over the internationally recognized radio channel as the Iranian boats maneuvered around the U.S. ships.

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BUT WITHIN hours, the official U.S. version of the story began to unravel.

Contrary to the way it was presented, the "threatening" voice from the radio was recorded separately from the video images of the boats, and the two were "merged" together later.

As the New York Times later reported, while the audio seems to include a heavily accented voice warning in English that the Navy warships would explode, the recording "carries no ambient noise--the sounds of a motor, the sea or wind--that would be expected if the broadcast had been made from one of the five small boats that sped around the three-ship American convoy."

According to a report by Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service, "Also unraveling the story is testimony from a former U.S. naval officer that non-official chatter is common on the channel used to communicate with the Iranian boats, and testimony from the commander of the U.S. 5th fleet that the commanding officers of the U.S. warships involved in the incident never felt the need to warn the Iranians of a possible use of force against them.

"Further undermining the U.S. version of the incident is a video released by Iran Thursday showing an Iranian naval officer on a small boat hailing one of three ships.

"The Iranian commander is heard to say, 'Coalition warship 73, this is Iranian navy patrol boat.' He then requests the 'side numbers' of the U.S. warships. A voice with a U.S. accent replies, 'This is coalition warship 73. I am operating in international waters.'"

The five Iranian boats would have been no match for the much more heavily armed U.S. ships. "Although Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman described the Iranian boats as 'highly maneuverable patrol craft' that were 'visibly armed,' he failed to note that these are tiny boats carrying only a two- or three-man crew, and that they are normally armed only with machine guns that could do only surface damage to a U.S. ship," wrote Porter.

"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."

Asked if the Iranian boats were equipped with anti-ship missiles or torpedoes, Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff told reporters that the boats had neither. "I didn't get the sense from the reports I was receiving that there was a sense of being afraid of these five boats," Cosgriff said. He then denied reports that the U.S. crews were in the process of giving the order to open fire when the Iranian boats moved away.

In other words, the U.S. version of the incident appears completely overblown.

Following the release of a National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, the Bush administration has been searching for a way to renew its saber-rattling at Iran. Taking the opportunity of his recent trip to the Middle East, Bush denounced Iran for its supposed "provocation" in the Strait of Hormuz, stating that the U.S. and its Arab allies must confront the danger Iran poses "before it's too late."

But the real threat in the region comes from the U.S.--which has sent fully armed warships more than 7,000 miles from their home bases into the Strait of Hormuz, just off Iran's coast.

"Since 2006," analyst Michael Chossudovsky commented, "U.S. warships with advanced weapons systems have been stationed almost continuously within proximity of Iranian territorial waters. Large-scale U.S. war games have been conducted. Numerous acts of provocation directed against Iran have been undertaken...In addition to the three warships which apparently had been harassed by Iran speedboats, the entire U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed within proximity of the Strait of Hormuz and the Iranian coastline."

As Chossudovsky concluded, the claim that U.S. ships, with their massive arsenal at the ready, were threatened by five speedboats "reminds one of David and Goliath.'"