The U.S. Navy’s admission that a threat radioed to American warships in the Straits of Hormuz might not have come from Iranian speedboats might have disastrous consequences.
On Thursday, the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain cast doubt on the U.S. earlier version of Sunday’s incident, saying that there was "no way to know" if the threat to attack the American ships came from Iranian speedboats.
"There is no way to know where this (radioed threat) exactly came from. It could have come from the shore... or another vessel in the area," Lieutenant John Gay told AFP by telephone.
The Navy’s statement may calm fears of an imminent conflict between Washington and Tehran, but according to an article on the BBC, the admission could raise new fears about the chances of unintended clashes in the region because the whole affair is very similar to an incident in 1988 when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in the Strait of Hormuz after its crew failed to monitor the radio traffic properly and thought that it was an Iranian fighter jet.
The Iranian government insisted at the time that the Americans destroyed the airliner, an Airbus with 290 people on board, all of whom died, even though they knew it was just a civilian plane.
But the U.S. government later justified the destruction of the airliner, saying that a condition called “scenario fulfilment”, in which military personnel expect and then execute a particular scenario as if in an exercise, was the main factor behind the incident.
It isn’t clear whether that scenario was going to take place in the weekend’s incident. But the whole affair raises concerns that a misread radio transmission could spark clashes between the two sides nearly 20 years after the Vincennes disaster.
Who issued the warning?
There are serious doubts over the voice that issued the warning radioed to the American ships.
According to the U.S.-released audiotape, a deep voice said: "I am coming at you. You will explode after a few minutes."
The footage released by the Pentagon implied that the threat was part of a series of transmissions to the U.S. ships from the Iranian speedboats. (See U.S. video: U.S.-Iran Gulf confrontation)
But it turned out that the warning was a separate audio recording that was added onto the video, a revelation that casts doubts over the U.S. earlier version and boosts Iran‘s accusations that the U.S. “fabricated” the footage.
Meanwhile, experts say the warning could have come from another ship in the area or from a radio transmitter on shore. The channel used by the Iranian vessels to make their inquiries is an open one.
Confirming this theory, Lieutenant John Gay said the threat was made through an "open bridge to bridge circuit" and it would be "very difficult to determine" that it came from the Iranian speedboats.
To counter U.S. charges that Iranian speedboats swarmed around the U.S. ships and radioed a threat to blow them up, the Iranians released their own video on Thursday, in which one of the Iranian sailors contacts the U.S. ships via radio, politely asking him to identify the American vessels and state their purposes. (See Iranian video: Iranian version of Persian Gulf incident)
The Iranian gets a dusty reply that the U.S. vessels are in international waters.
In addition to showing that the voice on the radio transmission was different than the one that issued the “warning”, the Iranian video doesn’t show that the Iranian speedboats were buzzing close (200m or so) to the Americans.
Although the Iranian footage, released by the Revolutionary Guards which the U.S. alleged was involved in the incident, confirms Iran’s earlier version that the whole affair was just a routine check by its sailors, the U.S. insists that the Iranian speedboats acted “aggressively”!
Some analysts say the alleged stand-off in the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world's oil supplies pass, is part of a propaganda battle between the U.S. and Iran which are locked in a standoff over Tehran's nuclear program.
But others say that the incident could have horrible consequences.
Even though tensions between Tehran and Washington diminished following the release of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that Iran is not building a nuclear weapon, there are still fears of a U.S. military attack against the Islamic Republic, particularly because Washington maintains strong naval forces in the Persian Gulf and in the waters of its Gulf allies.
President Bush, currently on a Middle East tour that will also take him to American allies in the Gulf, threatened Iran on Wednesday with “serious consequences” if it attacked U.S. warships.
Speaking in Israel at the start of the Middle East visit which many analysts say is mainly aimed at rallying Arab support against Iran, Bush said "all options" were on the table to protect U.S. assets after Sunday's incident.
Bush’s warning, along with the already inflamed tensions between Iran and the U.S., raise fears that an incident that could’ve been settled peacefully if it happened between any other two countries could spark another disastrous war in the Middle East.
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