Iran showdown has echoes of faked Tonkin attack
A dramatic showdown at sea. Crossed communication signals. Apparently-hostile craft nearby. Sketchy intelligence leading to ratcheted up rhetoric.
The similarities between this week's confrontation between US warships and Iranian speedboats and events off the coast of North Vietnam 44 years ago were too hard for many experts to miss, leading to the question: Is the Strait of Hormuz 2008's Gulf of Tonkin?
On Aug. 2nd and 4th, 1964, the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy, patrolling off the North Vietnamese coast, intercepted signals indicating they were under attack. Within days, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which paved the way to the escalation of the Vietnam War. However, as some intelligence agents suspected at the time, the Aug. 2nd attack took place after the USS Maddox fired first, according to a National Security Agency report released in 1995.
This week another NSA report surfaced, confirming suspicions that the Aug. 4th attack never happened.
The researcher who uncovered the most recent NSA assessment tells RAW STORY that the Strait of Hormuz confrontation, and the immediate saber-rattling from the Bush administration and its allies, demonstrates the extent to which officials must be wary about politicizing shaky intelligence in times of war.
"The parallels (between Tonkin and Hormuz) speak for themselves, but what they say is that even the most basic factual assumptions can be made erroneously [or] can prove to be false," Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, told Raw Story. "Therefore extreme caution is always appropriate before drawing conclusions ... that might leave to violent conflict. That's almost so obvious that I feel embarrassed saying it, but there is a history of mistaken interpretations of these kinds of encounters that ought to teach us humility."
Humility and caution, of course, don't seem to be the most popular buzz words in the Bush White House.
"It is a dangerous situation. ... I think it was a provocative act," Bush warned two days after a handful of small Iranian speedboats spooked a fleet of US Navy warships.
The Pentagon's initial account of the Jan. 6 confrontation said the Iranian boats "charged" the US ships, dropped boxes in the water that were thought to be mines and threatened to set up "explosions." An unnamed US Defense Department official told the Associated Press the day after the incident that it was "the most serious provocation of its sort" in the Gulf, although Iranian officials tried to downplay the incident as a simple misunderstanding.
It was not until Thursday, after the Pentagon and Iran had each released videos of the encounter, that the US acknowledged the verbal threats they had associated with the Iranian speedboats from day one could have been broadcast from virtually anywhere.
"I am coming to you .... You will explode after a few minutes," a voice says on the audio recording but Farsi speakers and Iranians have said the voice did not sound Iranian.
Aftergood said he was surprised at the uncertainty regarding the origin of that message, which was broadcast on a public communication channel and superimposed onto the end of the Pentagon video.
"One might've thought that they would be able to pinpoint it exactly, but it turns out that's not so," said Aftergood, who runs FAS's Project on Government Secrecy. "It's also surprising that President Bush was permitted to get so far out in front on this issue, even though there were significant uncertainties on what transpired."
Others have questioned the supposed mines that were claimed to be dropped form the Iranian boats.
"The bit about the 'white boxes' being dropped into the water seems almost equally dubious," writes Glenn Greenwald. "Neither the video of the incident released by the U.S. military, nor the video version released by the Iranian government, includes any such event, nor are there any references to it at all on the audio."
Aftergood said the information should have been more fully vetted before the White House began warning Iran of "serious consequences" of future showdowns.
"What you hear talking is the child on the schoolyard, not the sober national leader," he said. "And i don't think that serves anyone's interest."
Aftergood noted that America is less poorly equipped to avoid international incidents than it was during the Cold War.
"The credibility at least of the administration has taken a hit by the way this episode played out," Aftergood said, but the near-confrontation could provide an opportunity for Bush to learn from his mistakes.
The US has largely given Iran the diplomatic silent treatment during the Bush years, which Aftergood said increases the likelihood that the next Strait of Hormuz-type incident won't de-escalate so quickly.
"If we could have a hotline with the Kremlin while they had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at our country, one would think we could do the same for Iran," he said. "With some skillful statesmanship ... this could serve as the impetus for that, but it would be one way to turn a negative into a net positive."