I’m no military expert, but I’m pretty sure that five small speedboats armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and “white boxes” are no match for a Navy cruiser, destroyer and frigate, especially when it’s between Iran and America. I mean, the last thing that the American nuclear superpower would be afraid of is an oil-producing country that has to import gasoline, right? Wrong. “Five small boats were acting in a very aggressive way, charging the ships, dropping boxes in the water in front of the ships and causing our ships to take evasive maneuvers,” said a Pentagon official to the Associated Press. The day before Bush’s much-publicized Middle East visit, the U.S.-Iran confrontation took a dangerous turn when Iranian speedboats manned by the Revolutionary Guards confronted U.S. Navy ships in the Straits of Hormuz, which allegedly were sailing in international waters. The U.S. said Iran was engaged in provocative actions. Iran said it was a normal incident that happens all the time. Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been near boiling point for a long time now, due largely to a belligerent superpower competing with a regional upstart over who gets to shape events in the oil-rich and highly strategic Middle East. Despite the serious consequences of an open shooting war, the entire episode was — if nothing else — comical. Take, for example, the radio transmission the U.S. claimed Iran gave the ships during the swarm. “I am coming at you. You will explode in a couple of minutes.” Apparently, it was the white boxes they were dropping in the water that was going to “explode” them. Then there’s the ultra-conservative Iranian daily, Jomhuri Islami, which editorialized Bush’s visit to the region as a bunch of “razzmatazz.” That’s right. A pro-government newspaper in the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran actually used the word “razzmatazz.” Last, but not least, there’s the comment made to a reporter by Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff during a visit to Bahrain with Sec. of Defense Robert Gates. “I wake up thinking about Iran, I go to bed thinking about Iran.” One wonders if his dreams include Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a tutu holding George W. Bush on the end of a leash. Then again, let’s not and say we did. Far from a “serious provocation,” the entire episode looked more like a prank played on Washington and it worked; they were forced to take evasive maneuvers and bitterly complained about being the butt of a joke. Had the American ships fired on the boats, however, the possible outcome is anything but funny, and neither is the great game being played in the Middle East. Control over Middle Eastern oil is at the heart of the game and if the long talked about American war with Iran would ever happen, the Straits of Hormuz is where it would start. The Straits is a major commercial waterway where 20 percent of the world’s oil is shipped. According to Wikipedia, “It is the only sea passage to the open ocean for large areas of the petroleum-exporting Persian Gulf States.” Because Iran touches the Straits, it’s in a position to disrupt shipping, either through laying mines or blocking it with its own Navy, which the Islamic Republic has threatened to do in recent years. Given Iran’s relative military strength in the Persian Gulf and its radical anti-American government, control and transit of Middle Eastern oil is of utmost concern to Washington’s national security, important enough to go to war over. It was the sight of many pitched naval battles during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which included clashes between the Iranian Navy and the American warships protecting Kuwaiti and Saudi tankers during the phase known as the “Tanker War.” It was also the sight of one of the worst aviation disasters in history — the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988 that killed all 290 passengers on board. Now, almost 20 years later, another confrontation threatened to bring back the bad old days. If there was a provocation, then the important question is who did the provoking? More importantly, who stood to benefit from such a provocation? My first instinct was to point the finger at the Bush administration for creating a disturbance ahead of his visit to the Middle East. While the visit is centered around “peacemaking” between Israel and Fatah, Bush “is expected to make Iran a centerpiece of his Middle East tour, particularly during his stops in the Gulf countries that face Iran,” according to the Washington Post. Israeli-Palestinian peace is a crumb thrown to the Arab allies so they can in turn support Washington’s anti-Iran crusade. Because the last National Intelligence Estimate found no active Iranian nuclear program since 2003, the Bush administration is struggling to maintain a united front against Tehran. An armed confrontation blamed on Iran is a perfect way to convince the American public and his allies that Iran is still a threat. “We are going to confront Iran’s behavior where it threatens us, where it threatens our allies,” said State Dept. spokesman Sean McCormack at a press conference. His boss Condoleezza Rice told the Jerusalem Post that “The U.S. is going to defend its interests. It’s going to defends its allies.” Iran, on the other hand, wouldn’t engage in such a provocation because it wouldn’t do Ahmadinejad’s regime any good to be attacked when the Iranian economy is hit with high inflation and American occupation forces surround the country. In addition, engaging in provocative behavior during International Atomic Energy Agency head Dr. Mohamed El-Baradei’s visit to Iran over the same weekend would be bad timing; the Iranian government isn’t that stupid. Then there’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s conciliatory remark on Jan. 3 to students about future U.S.-Iran relations, according to the BBC, saying, “We have never said these relations should be suspended indefinitely.” It’s important to note that Khamenei has the final authority in foreign relations, and not Ahmadinejad. This doesn’t show Iran in a belligerent mood, especially since Dr. El-Baradei’s trip “comes at a time of renewed efforts by the United States to keep the pressure on Iran on the nuclear issue,” according to the New York Times, despite the NIE. Unless, that is, Tehran is gambling on a provocation at a time when the NIE showed American claims to be hollow. To confront the superpower at a time when its credibility is at an all-time low would show the world that Iran is a nation to reckon with, especially when the country is governed by a man that thinks in global terms. The timing of the day before Bush’s regional visit could be a message to him that Iran is an important regional player and it can’t be ignored. Parallels have been drawn between this incident and the kidnapping of 15 British sailors in March 2007. Traditionally, when the Islamic Republic wants to send a message to Washington, it has done so through the British, and the holding of the sailors was a message to both England and the United States. In the aftermath of the NIE and the final year of Bush’s presidency, perhaps Tehran saw an opportunity to send a direct message to the source in its own backyard. Or, maybe what was reported was what actually happened. Regardless of which scenario is correct, the United States bears the blame for creating the conditions for such “provocations” that could lead to an immoral and disastrous war. But it’s the neo-colonial relationship the U.S. has with the Middle East that is the ultimate provocation, especially vis a vis Iran. It’s the United States that put in place the Shah and bolstered his regime, leading to the revolution and the rise of the mullahs. It’s the United States that supported Iraq in the 1980-88 war and supplied weapons to both sides. It’s a belligerent Washington that threatens Iran with a military attack – including with nuclear weapons – and regime change, while surrounding it with occupation forces. Any one of these prolonged provocations was far more dangerous than one involving speedboats. Addressing them is long overdue.
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