The Pentagon's version of the encounter in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday morning, involving U.S. Navy warships and Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats is, at the very least highly suspicious. On Tuesday, the Navy released video footage and an audiotape to back its claims that the Iranian boats acted in a threatening and provocative manner, but neither the video nor the audio are particularly convincing as proof that Iran had hostile intentions. The video, which shows what is claimed are Iranian boats speeding around U.S. ships, doesn't show any of the boats hurtling directly towards any of the navy ships, nor does it show what the Pentagon claimed the Iranians then did, namely dropped "white boxes" in the water. (I would have opened fire at those, wouldn't you?) The audio tape is even less convincing, mainly because 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. (The tape is also separate from any video.) Any Iranian can immediately identify Persian-accented English, particularly if the speaker has had little contact with the West, as is the case with Revolutionary Guardsmen and sailors. Iranians, you see, have difficulty with two consonants such as "p" and "l" next to each other; even Iranians who have lived in America for years will often pronounce "please" as "peh-leeze", or in this case, "explode" as "exp-eh-lode". On the tape, "explode" is pronounced perfectly, albeit as if the speaker was a villain addressing a superhero. Further, it is unimaginable, given what is known about the Revolutionary Guards (and I have met many), that one of its corps would speak in a such a manner, even if the accent were correctly Persian.
The fact that the Iranian foreign ministry downplayed the encounter as routine and minor, and that the Revolutionary Guards, not known for their moderation, actually denied the U.S. version of events, is curious. Iran, which is usually keen to exploit its image as a fearless foe of the U.S., would ordinarily relish the opportunity to show that it can be a menace to the great superpower, particularly if, as the encounter shows, the U.S. does little to counter that menace. (Khomeini's words, "the U.S. cannot do a damn thing", are still emblazoned on the walls of the former American Embassy in Tehran.) Iranian patrol boats do indeed, as Iran freely admits, check on ships that enter the Persian Gulf, in this case only three miles outside its territorial waters, much as one would expect them to do (and as the U.S. Coast Guard would undoubtedly do if a foreign fleet of warships cruised within fifteen miles of say, Miami Beach), but apart from the arrest of the British sailors last year, there is hardly ever even a sharp exchange of words. At the risk of sounding like (and as I'm sure I will be accused of being) an apologist for the Islamic Republic, the encounter with the U.S. Navy as described by the Pentagon just doesn't ring true. Coming as it did on the eve of President Bush's visit to the Middle East, the encounter as described is doubly suspicious.
The Bush administration seems to have finally settled on a schizophrenic Iran policy; a policy that requires it to on the one hand send conciliatory messages to its foe, if for no other reason than to keep Iraq from imploding, and the other hand maintain pressure on Iran, threatening it from time to time and raising with a domestic audience as well as with the Arab states the specter of a bogeyman run amok in the world's most dangerous region. The policy actually makes sense, in some regards, as Mr. Bush would like nothing more than a stable Iraq in his legacy, something that is impossible without Iran's help (and something that would give a boost to any Republican candidate, particularly Mr. McCain, in the fall), but he also doesn't want to see Iranian power grow too much, especially now that U.S.-allied Arab countries are falling over themselves to appease Iran. The specter of a dangerous Iran, one that could threaten the U.S., is also important for the Republican candidates, robbed as they were in December of their favorite villain with the release of the NIE report that suggested the Iranians were not, in fact, developing nuclear weapons. Mr. Bush can try to use the Persian Gulf incident to his advantage in his meetings with Arab leaders this week, and domestically it will play well, but the Arabs will unlikely be fooled by what appears to be a poorly concocted scenario. They, too, have hard-to-mimic accents when they speak English.