01/11/2008 10:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Keystone Cops Confront Iran

The Pentagon has now admitted that the audio they released in their video of the naval encounter with Iran might not have come from the Iranian ships. The Washington Post reports Friday:

The Pentagon said yesterday that the apparent radio threat to bomb U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf last weekend may not have come from the five Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats that approached them -- and may not even have been intended against U.S. targets.

US officials are trying to spin this admission as not being a big deal.

They are, of course, wrong. It is a huge deal.

The New York Times reported on its website Thursday:

The list of those who are less than fully confident in the Pentagon's video/audio mashup of aggressive maneuvers by Iranian boats near American warships in the Strait of Hormuz now includes the Pentagon itself.

Unnamed Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that the threatening voice heard in the audio clip, which was released on Monday night with a disclaimer that it was recorded separately from the video images and merged with them later, is not directly traceable to the Iranian military.

The Times reported Thursday:

The audio includes a heavily accented voice warning in English that the Navy warships would explode. However, 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.

On Wednesday, a reader identifying himself as a former Navy officer with experience in the Strait of Hormuz wrote to the Times:

All ships at sea use a common UHF frequency, Channel 16, also known as "bridge-to bridge" radio. Over here, near the U.S., and throughout the Mediterranean, Ch. 16 is used pretty professionally, i.e., chatter is limited to shiphandling issues, identifying yourself, telling other ships what your intentions are to avoid mishaps, etc.

But over in the Gulf, Ch. 16 is like a bad CB radio. Everybody and their brother is on it; chattering away; hurling racial slurs, usually involving Filipinos (lots of Filipinos work in the area); curses involving your mother; 1970's music broadcast in the wee hours (nothing odder than hearing The Carpenters 50 miles off the coast of Iran at 4 a.m.)
On Ch. 16, esp. in that section of the Gulf, slurs/threats/chatter/etc. is commonplace. So my first thought was that the "explode" comment might not have even come from one of the Iranian craft, but some loser monitoring the events at a shore facility.

Indeed, it's not at all clear that the voice in the Pentagon's audiotape is even Iranian. The Washington Post reports:

Farsi speakers and Iranians told The Washington Post that the accent did not sound Iranian.

Presumably, all the information that we have now about this incident - that the radio communication that the Pentagon released as part of its video might not have come from the Iranian ships, and that the voice might not even be Iranian - was available to the Pentagon - if they were interested - when they released the tape. Why the rush to release this video without checking?

The most plausible explanation was that there was a rush to release the video prior to President Bush's trip to the region, because his key goal was to press the US case for isolating Iran.

And this is similar to what the Iranians have claimed, that the US was hyping whatever happened to try to bolster their case for isolating Iran ahead of the President's trip.

So, as with the release of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, where the US intelligence conclusion that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program followed a period in which the US was claiming that they did and Iran was saying that they did not, and IAEA and Russia were saying that they had no evidence that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, the net effect of this incident is that the credibility of the US on Iran is diminished and the credibility of Iran is increased.

Members of Congress, and Presidential candidates, should be asking questions about the Pentagon's rush to release the tape, with the quite possibly unrelated audio. People in the region are likely to conclude that it is the U.S., not Iran, that is behaving in a dangerously provocative way.

It's difficult to overstate how low the credibility of U.S. statements is in the Middle East right now. It may actually be negative. If the U.S. announces that two plus two is four, some people in the Middle East are going to scratch their heads and say, "Well, until now we thought it was four, but perhaps it is five."

You have to wonder if some folks in the Washington foreign policy establishment are counting the days until they can put the empire under new management.