They say that if you have only heard one side of a divorce case, you have no idea what actually happened. The same is true of international disputes. The tape released by the Pentagon on Monday of an encounter between five Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats and three American warships in the Straits of Hormuz appears to have given a highly misleading impression of the seriousness of the incident.
The tape, released on the eve of President George Bush’s visit to the Middle East, dramatically underscored one of the president’s main themes for the trip—Iran is a dangerous nation that must be confronted. The four-minute recording appeared to show five small patrol boats buzzing a U.S. Aegis cruiser and its destroyer and frigate escorts.
On the surface the small boats did not appear to pose much of a threat to the three heavily armed U.S. ships, but the boats did come within the security zone of the ships and commanders would have been within their rights to fire on the boats. The Navy tape seems to show a warning horn sounding.
The most menacing part of the tape (and the one stressed in all the media coverage) is the audio that the Navy now acknowledges was spliced into the video. It is a deep voice sounding like someone doing an Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation saying, “I am coming to you. You will explode after a few minutes.”
The Navy now says it does not know who said this or if it came from the Iranian boats. There is no background noise with the voice, such as boat engines or wind, and the voice is unlike any other heard on the tapes. The Navy says the voice was recorded on channel 16, an unclassified channel used by all mariners for bridge to bridge communications and monitored by the U.S. Navy at sea. In other words, it could have come from any radio, anywhere in the area.
Iran released its own five-minute tape that appears to show a calm encounter with the Navy and the Guard in routine communication. The Navy does not dispute the authenticity of the Iranian tape. From the beginning, the Iranian Foreign ministry said the incident was commonplace in the narrow straits. They denied that any threats were made and said the situation normalized as soon as identities were established. "What happened between the Guards and foreign vessels was an ordinary identification," said Ali Reza Tangsiri, commander of the Guard’s naval forces in the region.
Both sides seemed to have released tapes edited to tell their side. The truth may lie somewhere in between. If the Navy tape is accurate as to the position of the Iranian boats, then the Revolutionary Guard went dangerously beyond a commonplace naval encounter. If the Iranian tape is accurate as to the routine verbal exchanges, then the Bush administration’s release of the edited tape and dire warnings from the president and secretary of state needlessly hyped a threat for political purposes and further undermined American credibility in a crucial region.
Political figures continued the spin throughout the week. With the South Carolina primary approaching, leading Republican presidential candidates renewed claims about the security threat posed by Iran. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that the Hormuz encounter “reminds us that we shouldn’t be lulled into some false sense of confidence about Iran.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee went further, warning that those who threatened a U.S. ship should be prepared to see “the gates of Hell.”
What Can We Learn?
A calmer view came from regional policy experts who warned that the hyped up threat and the attempt to continue a policy of isolating Iran is bound to fail.
William Arkin noted that "[f]or their part, the U.S. naval officers in the video show remarkable control, remaining wary and yet careful not to contribute to any escalation." But he lamented that "it’s too bad that the administration won’t emulate the Navy’s discipline and take the incident in stride."
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said regional players may conclude that the most dangerous source of tension is the current state of no-war no-peace between the United States and Iran, which has created an atmosphere in which incidents at sea—whether intentional or accidental—can escalate into full-fledged wars with unpredictable regional repercussions. “This may reinforce the belief that U.S.-Iran tensions and the policy of isolating Iran in and of themselves pose a greater risk to regional stability than Iran’s willingness and ability to wreck havoc.”
Analysts Mark Brzezinski and Ray Takeyh say that: “given the dramatic changes that the Middle East has undergone in the last few years, and the removal of the traditional Iraqi barrier to projection of Iran’s influence, it is hard to see how Tehran can be isolated. At a time when Iranian officials are welcomed in Arab capitals, and as trade between Iran and its neighbors soars, a regional accord on isolating Iran simply does not exist.”
A New Realism
It is time for the Bush administration to jettison its failed Iran policy. The president’s attempt to use his Middle East trip to win support for a strategy that attempts to coerce Iran into compliance or collapse has failed. Nor can he afford to simply “muddle through” his last year in office.
There is still time to forge a new policy that combines pressure with incentives—a policy that contains Iranian ambitions by engaging Iran in a process that America can still largely control. Such a strategy is detailed in a Center for American Progress report, Contain and Engage. It should be a policy that takes note of the recent statements from Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that “We never said that these relations will be suspended indefinitely. . . . Certainly I would be the first to approve of resuming ties with the U.S. the day it is to the benefit of the nation."
In short, the United States should adopt a pragmatic policy that neither exaggerates the threats nor underestimates the difficulties. The sooner we embark on its formation, the sooner we begin to unleash all the levers of U.S. power—economic, diplomatic, and military—the more likely we are to succeed.
Joseph Cirincione is a Senior Fellow and Director of Nuclear Policy at the Center for American Progress. He is also the co-author of "Contain and Engage: A New Strategy for Resolving the Nuclear Crisis with Iran."