Pentagon Wrongly Accuses Iran?

Today’s New York Times has an article  which reinforces Iran’s image as a “rogue nation.” The article describes its seizure of a cargo ship, quotes a Pentagon official as stating that “Iranian forces fired shots across the ship’s bow,” and ends with a former State Department official calling Iran’s actions “surprisingly incendiary.” However, KGS NightWatch, a highly respected private intelligence newsletter, has a very different take:

This is not a threat issue. Iranian naval forces acted in execution of a judicial order about a delinquent debt. In admiralty law, a ship may be arrested and sold to satisfy a debt of the owner of the ship. The Iranians appear to have acted consistent with international admiralty practice.

It’s too early to know which perspective is correct, but it is deeply disturbing that our media again is failing to ask the hard questions needed to avoid yet another needless war. This particular example of media bias against Iran is just one instance of a larger problem affecting not only Iran, but Russia, North Korea, and any other perceived adversary. If the Times‘ and other media’s descriptions of this event turn out to be needlessly provocative, it will bear a dangerous resemblance to the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incidents which became the legal basis for the Vietnam War. For details of how we fooled ourselves back then, see part 1 and part 2 of my series on Avoiding Needless Wars. Part 9 shows the same syndrome leading to the Iraq War.

The bias on the part of the American media reflected in this New York Times article is particularly concerning because of the ongoing, delicate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. There are enough hurdles to achieving a diplomatic solution that we don’t need to be adding any imaginary boogeymen. Given that the alternative to diplomacy might well be another bloody, expensive, and inconclusive war, it is high time we put on our thinking caps before jumping to conclusions.

Martin Hellman

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UPDATE ADDED MAY 7, 2015: Today’s print edition of the New York Times had an article which reinforces KGS Nightwatch’s initial observation that this is primarily a commercial dispute, and that the Times initial coverage was therefore needlessly incendiary. A colleague of mine also pointed out that the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards make billions from smuggling to get around the sanctions and therefore have a financial interest in maintaining them. This new article notes that the IRG took the ship hostage, so this incident may also involve a rivalry between groups in Iran, with the IRG wanting to sabotage the nuclear negotiations which would result in the lifting of sanctions, while more moderate elements (and which stand to benefit from the lifting of sanctions) are trying to smooth over this incident.

UPDATE ADDED MAY 8, 2015: Today’s print edition of the New York Times had an article which stated, “A Maersk Line cargo vessel impounded at gunpoint more than a week ago by Iran’s naval patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz was released on Thursday after talks between the shipper and the Iranian authorities.”

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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