Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Playing Chicken in the Strait of Hormuz

Sunday morning, in the Strait of Hormuz, the USS Port Royal, the USS Hopper and the USS Ingraham had a close encounter with at least five small, fast boats from Iran. There's a Department of Defense video on CNN that shows several minutes of the 20-minute-plus incident.

Although Iran has a different version of what happened, I think the question isn't what happened: it's why it happened.

Here's a selection of what was said and done, according to another news story:
  • U.S. Navy ship: "Inbound small craft, you are approaching a coalition warship operating in international waters. Your identity is not known and your intentions are unclear.Request you alter course immediately to remain clear."
  • Iraqi boat radio reply: "You will explode in a couple of minutes."
  • At some point, the Iranian boats dumped boxes overboard.
  • The boats sped between the navy ships, crossing the wake of at least one.
The Strait of Hormuz is 34 miles across at its narrowest point, where there is a six-mile-wide navigable channel: two miles for northbound traffic, two for southbound, and a two-mile buffer between them. Two miles doesn't leave much rooms for ships like the Port Royal, Hopper and Ingraham to maneuver.

Iran and America don't agree on how serious an event this is: at least, not officially.
  • America ("President Bush Participates in Video Teleconference with Iraq Provincial Reconstruction Team Leaders and Brigade Combat Commanders," White House, January 8, 2008):

    Q Mr. President, what do you make of the incident in the Strait of Hormuz with Iran on Sunday? Do you think they were trying to provoke a fight with the U.S.?

    THE PRESIDENT: Well, Mark, we viewed it as a provocative act. It is a dangerous situation, and they should not have done it, pure and simple.

    Q What do you think they were up to?

    THE PRESIDENT: I don't know what I think -- what their thinking was, but I'm telling you what I think it was. I think it was a provocative act.

    Q What will your message be to the Fifth Fleet when you're there in Bahrain?

    THE PRESIDENT: My message is, thanks for serving the United States of America; we're proud of you. And my message today to the Iranians is, they shouldn't have done what they did.

  • Iran (FM spokesman says act taken in connection with US ship is normal," IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency) January 7, 2008):

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini said on Monday the act taken in connection with an American navy ship is something normal.

    In an exclusive interview with IRNA on Monday, Hosseini said, "That's something normal taking place every now and then for each party and it (the problem) is settled after identification of the two parties."
    He recalled that the case had happened in the past too and finalized as the two parts identified each other.

    He said, "The case happening on Saturday was similar to the past ones and it was a regular and natural issue."
    Some western media late Monday quoted US officials as claiming that several Iranian speedboats had neared several US navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz.

    The US officials also claimed that during the incident warnings had been exchanged between the two sides.
I'm sure that the Iranian point of view will be solemnly considered, but I think Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman is factually challenged in this matter.

About the Iranian boats needing to identify the U.S. naval ships:
  • The commander of U.S. 5th Fleet said the American vessels had been identified by Iranian authorities before the boats started playing chicken with the U.S. Navy ships. In a telephone interview with the Associated Press, reported in USA Today: "The group had been successfully queried by an Iranian ship, possibly a Revolutionary Guards ship, and two or three Iranian (shore) stations and an Omani station," Cosgriff said. Besides, the ships were marked - those oversize numbers that naval ships wear.
  • As for "Some western media late Monday quoted US officials as claiming that several Iranian speedboats had neared several US navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz." - that video the Navy released might have been absolutely top-notch special effects, processed to look like it had been recorded inside a Naval vessel, the officers and crew of all three ships could be lying through their teeth, and the recorded ship-to-ship dialog could be a fake. But I don't think so.
An answer we may not learn for years - if ever - is why this incident happened.

It's possible that about a dozen Iranians, who had access to those fancy boats, decided that it would be fun to see how close they could come to getting killed. That explanation would be more likely, if Islam allowed boozing.

I think it's much more likely that Iran arranged this incident. If this is the case, whoever gave the order must have seen a really big payoff. Playing chicken with the U.S. Navy could have been expensive: those boats, similar to cigarette boats, aren't cheap, and their crews presumably represent an investment in training.

Iran may have been trying to send a "political message," as Riad Kahwaji, an Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis member, said. The Associated Press quoted his speculation that Iran was showing how dangerous military confrontation would be. "When somebody gets so close to a big ship then he's very likely asking for trouble or trying to provoke something," he said. "Opening fire means sparking a war. ... Does anyone really want to take that risk?"

Or, as crazy as it seems, Iran may have hoped to draw the United States into a shooting war with Iran. It's not too hard to imagine that the ayatollahs decided that Allah wouldn't let them lose.

I think it's more likely that Iran hoped for fatalities, or at least casualties. I'm no expert in Middle East political society, but I strongly suspect that shot-up and Muslims killed by infidels would have given Iran an opportunity to play the victim. The sympathy might have been enough to make their neighbors stop fussing about the nuclear weapons that Iran may or may not be developing.

Sunday's encounter reminds me, in a way, of the USS Vincennes and Iran Air Flight 655, back in 1988. The American naval vessel shot down an unarmed airliner with 290 people aboard. There were no survivors.

I did a little checking, and found a copy of declassified sections of the Pentagon report on what happened. It was posted by someone who added comments with a distinct attitude.

The Iran-Iraq war had been going on for years, with Iran attacking shipping in the area.
  • Kuwait had asked for - and gotten - help from America to defend their ships
  • In May of 1987, an Iraqi Mirage F-1 launched two missiles that hit the USS Stark, killing 37 sailors
  • in April 1988 the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts hit an Iranian mine
  • That was about the time that the Vincennes was deployed to the area
The Vincennes had a new defense system: the AEGIS combat system. Dealing with new technology is hard enough. Doing so when people are trying to kill you doesn't add a bit to a person's tranquility.

Apparently, Iran Air Flight 655, a routinely scheduled flight, took off and followed a course which would have taken it directly over the Vincennes. The Iranian military hadn't

The American government's explanation was that an inexperienced crew, under very stressful circumstances, made a series of fatal mistakes.

The Iranian government said that the Yankees did it on purpose.

I'm willing to accept the idea that Flight 655 was shot down by accident. However, there are some disturbing points.
  • The Iranian military didn't tell the pilot that the flight would be passing over foreign warships
  • If I'm reading the report right, flight 655 was picked up by the Vincennes radar at an altitude of 900 feet. A minute later, another ship picked Flight 655 at 1500 feet.
1500 feet is where the airliner should have been. To the Vincennes crew, a blip 900 feet above the water, flying straight at them, would have looked a lot like an attacking war plane.

For some reason, Flight 655's transponder seems to have 400 feet off. The transponder is a device that determines altitude based on air pressure, and broadcasts the altitude when it receives a signal. If somone had "interrogated" Flight 655's transponder while it was on the runway, it would have reported that the airliner was 40 stories underground. It looks like the Vincennes got its altitude data from the transponder.

Whether the Vincennes/Flight 655 incident was an accident, or a very well-set-up trap, the results were the same: America paid reparations to Iran, the International Court of Justice said that it was America's fault, and people had opportunities to explain in detail why and how America was at fault. (There's a pretty good summary in Wikipedia's "Independent Sources" section of its Iran Air Flight 655 article.)

I can't help think that Iran may have been trying to relive its Flight 655 aftermath successes.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.