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Gareth Porter: Official Version of U.S.-Iranian Naval Incident Starts to Unravel

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The United States has lodged a formal diplomatic protest against Iran for its “provocation” in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday morning. But new information reveals that the alleged Iranian threat to American naval vessels may have been blown out of proportion. We speak to investigative historian Gareth Porter. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The United States has lodged a formal diplomatic protest against Iran for its “provocation” in the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday morning. But new information reveals that the alleged Iranian threat to American naval vessels in the Strait might have been blown out of proportion.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon released video of Iranian patrol boats approaching American warships and an audio recording of a direct threat in English. The accented voice says, “I am coming to you,” and then adds, “You will explode after a few minutes.”

    IRANIAN VOICE: I am coming to you.

    US NAVAL OFFICER: Inbound small craft, you’re approaching a coalition warship operating in international waters. Your identity is not know. Your intentions are unclear. You’re sailing into danger and may be subject to defensive measures. Request you establish communications now or alter your course immediately to remain clear. Request you alter course immediately to remain clear.

    IRANIAN VOICE: You will explode after a few minutes.

    US NAVAL OFFICER: “You will explode after a few minutes.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was an audio recording released by the Pentagon along with the video of the encounter between American warships and Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz.

But a Navy spokesperson told ABC News Thursday that the threat might not have come from the Iranian patrol boats, but from the shore or another ship passing by. The spokesperson added, “I guess we’re not saying that it absolutely came from the boats, but we’re not saying it absolutely didn’t.”

Iran has denied all allegations of a confrontation and released its own video of the encounter. This is an excerpt of the Iranian video broadcast on Thursday showing what seems to be a routine exchange between an Iranian Navy patrol boat and the American ship.

    IRANIAN NAVAL PATROLMAN: Coalition warship 73, this is Iranian Navy patrol boat. Request side number [inaudible] operating in the area this time. Over.

    US NAVAL OFFICER: This is coalition warship 73. I’m operating in international waters.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His latest article for IPS News analyzes how the official US version of the naval incident has begun to unravel. He joins us now from Washington, D.C. Gareth Porter, welcome.

GARETH PORTER: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about everything that happened from Sunday, what President Bush said, what the Pentagon was alleging, and now what we understand?

GARETH PORTER: Well, this alleged crisis or confrontation on the high seas is really much less than what met the eyes of the American public as it was reported by news media. And the story really began from leaks from the Pentagon. I mean, there were Pentagon officials apparently calling reporters and telling them that something had happened in the Strait of Hormuz, which represented a threat to American ships and that there was a near battle on the high seas. The way it was described to reporters, it was made to appear to be a major threat to the ships and a major threat of war. And that’s the way it was covered by CNN, by CBS and other networks, as well as by print media.

Then I think the next major thing that happened was a briefing by the commander of the 5th fleet in Bahrain, the Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, which is very interesting. If you look carefully at the transcript, which was not reported accurately by the media, or not reported at all practically, the commander — or rather, Vice Admiral Cosgriff actually makes it clear that the ships were never in danger, that they never believed they were in danger, and that they were never close to firing on the Iranian boats. And this is the heart of what actually happened, which was never reported by the US media.

So I think that the major thing to really keep in mind about this is that it was blown up into a semi-crisis by the Pentagon and that the media followed along very supinely. And I must say this is perhaps the worst — the most egregious case of sensationalist journalism in the service of the interests of the Pentagon, the Bush administration, that I have seen so far.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Gareth Porter, there have been some reports about the apparent splicing of audio onto the actual video that appear to be from two different sources. Could you talk about that?

GARETH PORTER: Well, that’s right. I mean, we don’t yet know exactly what the sequence of events was in this incident. We don’t know exactly when the voices that we hear making what appear to be a threat to the American ships, where — when that occurred in the sequence of events in this incident. And it seems very possible that indeed the Pentagon did splice into the recording, the audio recording of the incident, the two bits of messages from a mysterious voice in a way that made it appear to occur in response to the initial communication from the US ship to the Iranian boats. And it seems very possible that, in fact, those voices came at some other point during this twenty-minute incident.

So this is something that really deserves to be scrutinized and, in fact, investigated by Congress, because of the significance, in the larger sense, of a potential major fabrication of evidence in order to make a political point by the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Porter, what about the timing of this, on the eve of President Bush’s visit to the Middle East?

GARETH PORTER: Well, of course, there’s no doubt that the motivation for the Pentagon to blow this incident up was precisely the timing of President Bush leaving on a trip to the Middle East, in which one of his major purposes was to try to keep together a coalition of Arab states, which — a very, very loose and shaky coalition to oppose Iran and to support, hopefully, according to the administration’s policy, the US pressure on Iran through diplomatic and financial means, through the Security Council and through its allies in Europe. So this is definitely part of the reason, very clearly, that what was a very minor incident which did not threaten US ships, as far as we can tell from all the evidence so far, was turned into what was presented as a confrontation and a threat of war.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Gareth Porter, I’d like to ask you, I was watching the Republican debate last night on Fox News and was astonished to see one of the moderators spend quite a bit of time on this topic, questioning every one of the candidates as to whether they believe the Navy commander on the scene did the right thing by not blowing the Iranian boats out of the water. Surprisingly, only Ron Paul, the maverick, even questioned some of the facts of the incident as reported. Your response to this suddenly becoming a topic for the presidential debates?

GARETH PORTER: Well, I think it’s astonishing that you have this incident being regarded as a test of whether the United States is being belligerent enough, when the commanders of the ships themselves clearly did not regard this as a threat to the safety of their ships. This is the point, again, that the commander of the 5th fleet made very clearly. He was asked by reporters whether the commanders were close to firing on the Iranian ships, and he said, “No, that was not the case,” that at no point were they about to fire on the ships and that they did not feel threatened by the Iranian boats. Bear in mind, what has not been reported by the media, that these are essentially small speedboats that are at most armed with machine guns, not with any weapons that were capable of harming those ships.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Porter, this also comes right at the time that new documents have — newly declassified documents have revealed that the Johnson administration faked the Gulf of Tonkin incident to escalate the war in Vietnam, to provide a pretext for increased bombing and increased troops there.

GARETH PORTER: Well, you know, this is an incident — the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the policy shenanigans surrounding it are something that I wrote about in my book, Perils of Dominance, about the US involvement in the Vietnam conflict. And what actually happened regarding the Gulf of Tonkin was that the ships, because of anxiety on the part of the crew of these ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, they thought they were under fire originally. They sent back messages saying that.

But within a matter of a couple of hours, the commander of the flotilla had decided that they had been mistaken, and he passed that message on to the Pentagon, and the Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was informed by early afternoon on the same day. And it is my interpretation, based on the evidence, that he failed — he refused to inform President Johnson of that fact, and that’s why Johnson went ahead with a decision to bomb North Vietnam, which had already been made at noontime.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, going back to the incident also, one of the key contradictions now that have surfaced between the initial reports and certainly after the Iranian release of their own video is that initially the public was told that these were Revolutionary Guard boats, and now the Iranian government has said no, that they were actually boats of the Iranian Navy, and they clearly identified themselves as such.

GARETH PORTER: I do not know what the provenance of these Iranian boats was, whether it was IRGC or Iranian Navy. We do have pictures, photographs of the IRGC small speedboats that clearly resemble the boats that are depicted — at least one of them — depicted in the video. But from the evidence that we have right now, it’s really impossible to say what — whether these boats belonged to be on IRGC or not. It is the case, however, that the IRGC does have, apparently, the primary responsibility to patrol in this area of the gulf. I heard yesterday a former commander of the IRGC state very clearly that they do in fact have the primary responsibility to patrol in that area. So it’s certainly the — it’s a possibility, a good possibility, that these were IRGC boats.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Porter, I want to thank you for being with us, investigative historian, writes for Inter Press Service. His latest book is called Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.

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