Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Persian Gulf on Tonkin:
Will Hawks Succeed in Igniting a Disastrous War Against Iran?

The following article was co-written with Murtaza Hussain and originally published on November 20, 2012 by Maher Arar's excellent Prism Magazine.

Recent incidents in the Persian Gulf suggest that United States may be pushed into a war its citizens had not planned for.

By: Murtaza Hussain and Nima Shirazi

U.S. history in recent decades is replete with examples of major wars started under fraudulent and otherwise questionable circumstances and recent events in the Persian Gulf suggest that another such unplanned “incident” or series of events may be dangerously close to bringing America into military conflict with Iran.

This past week CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reported a story which generated headlines across the world: that Iran had opened fire on an unmanned drone over international waters near Kuwait. Following the uncritical, utterly decontextualized narrative reported by CNN, this would appear to have been a wholly unprovoked and unprecedented act of aggression by Iran – an at of war itself or, to some, at the very least reasonable grounds upon which to retaliate.

As further reporting came out it became apparent that the real story was far less clear cut, but this incident is only one of many which regional hawks have attempted to use as a Gulf of Tonkin-style trigger for military engagement. The reporter behind it, a known conduit for Pentagon leaks, was also the source of a 2008 story which suggested that Iranian speedboats were engaging in aggressive military maneuvers against U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf – a story which was later quietly debunked but which, through shoddy and sensationalized reporting, nevertheless served its purpose of ratcheting up regional tensions towards war.

As hawkish elements within the U.S. military and political establishment angle put the country on course for another war in the Middle East, it is worth deconstructing the manufactured and embellished claims they have consistently employed in order to trigger just such a conflict; so that future claims can be afforded the degree of skepticism necessary to prevent the disinformation and hysterical environment within which wars break out.

Manufactured Crises

While the American public for the most part retains the perception that they possess reasonable control over major decisions and events regarding their country, and that extremely consequential decisions such as going to war are within their purview, the reality is that they, as a nation, have several times nearly been pushed into a major war without consultation or preparation beforehand.

A recent New York Times report revealed that in 2010 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had prepared to order military operations against Iran, and, as reported by Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, “trigger a chain events which would create tension and provoke Iran” in order to lead to a major regional war which would eventually drag in the United States. While Israeli political leadership made preparations for the imminent commencement for just such a war, completely unbeknownst to the Americans whom they planned would soon join it, the plan was only halted by the refusal of Israeli military brass to carry it out.

This attempt to create facts on the ground in order to manufacture a war with Iran is only one of many such documented cases. In 2007 U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff attempted to unilaterally trigger a war with the country by sailing an armada of aircraft carriers through the Strait of Hormuz, practically on Iran’s doorstep, with the intention of provoking a response which would result in open hostilities between the two countries. While Admiral Cosgriff was allegedly pursuing his plans with strict orders to his subordinates not to inform Washington or any of America’s regional allies, his operation was firmly in line with the openly voiced desire of the country’s neoconservative leadership at the time to go to war against Iran. Cosgriff would end up being foiled by a whistleblower within the military who informed the State Department of his impending plans, only to subsequently have her career and personal life ruined after being persecuted and drummed out of the military for defying the Admiral’s order to keep the plot concealed from political leadership. Cosgriff would also happen to be the source behind Barbara Starr’s 2008 allegations of aggression by Iranian speedboats in the Gulf; demonstrating that the drive among hawks to unilaterally start a war did not diminish with the termination of their original plans.

Trigger Points

From bizarre and highly public claims that Iran is recruiting mentally-ill private American citizens as well as Mexican drug cartels to carry out assassinations on U.S. soil, to anonymous crude drawings of nuclear weapons facilities leaked, and uncritically reported as fact by the media, the drumbeat of hysteria to start a war with Iran has grown increasingly pronounced in recent months and has to a greater degree begun to focus on individual incidents which may be taken as a “pretext”, regardless of their dubious nature. In this context it is worth remembering an individual incident, had roles been reversed, would have undoubtedly triggered military retaliation from the United States against Iran and would have rightly created global opprobrium against the Iranian government.

On July 3rd, 1988 a U.S. Navy warship stationed in the Persian Gulf, the USS Vincennes, shot down on an Iranian A-300 Airbus passenger plane in Iranian territorial waters. The plane was carrying 290 civilian passengers, all of whom were killed by a salvo of missiles fired by the Vincennes in an unprovoked attack against a civilian target. 66 of those killed were acknowledged to be children under the age of 12, despite which the U.S. government never issued an apology or formal acknowledgement of blame for the incident. It was maintained that the Vincennes mistook the massive Iranian aircraft for an F-14 Tomcat, a claim which on its face does not hold up well to scrutiny, and which has been fiercely challenged by many skeptical former U.S. military officials.

Despite this and despite widespread consensus that the incident was caused by their own personal recklessness and unilateral aggression, not one member of the crew of the Vincennes received official censure from the U.S. government. To the contrary, they were later awarded with combat-action medals after their tour of duty in the Gulf was complete. Indeed, the ship’s Commander from whom the order to fire came was awarded the prestigious Legion of Merit “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer … from April 1987 to May 1989.” When later questioned about the incident and the awards bestowed upon those specifically responsible for what was an unprovoked massacre of Iranian civilians, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush would say “I will never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don’t care what the facts are!”. Despite claims to reflexive Iranian irrationality and trigger-happiness, its government pursued retribution solely through the International Court of Justice which awarded the victims $61 million in compensation for unwarranted loss of life.

That such a wanton and outrageous attack failed to provoke action by the Iranian military or its proxies in the region would cast present claims of Iranian military belligerence in a curious light. As such, the USS Vincennes incident, among many others, must be taken into context when positing a scenario of Iranian aggression towards U.S. interests in the region. The United States and its regional allies are waging a multi-front war against Iran; including the willful and deliberate targeting of its civilian population, with the ostensible hopes of triggering a response which is either on its own sufficient – or which can be effectively embellished enough – to justify engagement in an open war between the two countries.

The recent purportedly clear-cut aggression against a U.S. drone in international airspace is only the latest in a long history of episodes reminiscent of the Gulf of Tonkin incident: of dubious veracity but nevertheless utilized by opportunistic war hawks attempting to trigger the military engagement they have been seeking for years. Such largely-manufactured incidents afford the simplicity and emotive value which make them perfect for galvanizing support from an otherwise war-weary public. Declining to instinctively take them at face value and viewing them with the requisite skepticism, which their context naturally affords, may help prevent America from being dragged into yet another disastrous conflict; one that by many accounts would dwarf anything it has experienced in modern history.


Murtaza Hussain is a writer and a frequent commentator on issues related to politics and foreign policy. His writings appeared in, al-Jazeera English, Prism and other online media outlets. He maintains a blog at You can follow Murtaza on Twitter.

No comments: