Suspect Ships: Is Everything About Iran Threatening?

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Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Suspect Ships: Is Everything About Iran Threatening?

Under the headline "Iranian Ship, in Plain View but Shrouded in Mystery, Looks Very Familiar to US," Eric Schmitt of the New York Times (3/20/14) reported on what he figured were some very curious–and alarming–developments in Iran:

Iran is building a nonworking mock-up of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that United States officials say may be intended to be blown up for propaganda value.

Where did the tip come from? As he explained, "American officials acknowledged on Thursday that they wanted to reveal the existence of the vessel to get out ahead of the Iranians."

So it looks like the US government is looking to send a message–which you might say has a "propaganda value" all its own, whatever Iran might be up to. The Times grants anonymity to a source to make the situation sound ominous:

"It is not surprising that Iranian military forces might use a variety of tactics–including military deception tactics–to strategically communicate and possibly demonstrate their resolve in the region," said an American official who has closely followed the construction of the mock-up.

Schmitt notes that, all that aside, US officials "say they are not unduly concerned about the mock ship." But then Schmitt adds his own twist:

But the fact that the Iranians are building it, presumably for some mysteriously bellicose purposes, contrasts with the fact that the Iranians stepped back from their typically heavy anti-American posture during a recent naval exercise in the gulf.

Schmitt also points out that the Iranian "government's purposes can be hard to decipher," and noted that it was "unclear to American officials whether Iran's hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps might try to provoke a conflict with the United States Navy to undercut" the recent nuclear agreement. 

The presumption would seem to be that, whatever is happening,  Iran has "bellicose purposes" in mind.  That's how USA Today sees it too, promoting the headline "Iranians Up to 'No Good' With US Aircraft Carrier Mock-Up" on its March 24 front page.  The piece inside, by Brian Tumulty, began with the perspective of long-time Iran hawk Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY): 

 The senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee says Iran's construction of a mock-up U.S. aircraft carrier demonstrates Iran's continued lack of good faith.

"We don't really know what it means, but I for sure don't trust the Iranians," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said Saturday. "It's some kind of a ruse and whatever they are up to, it's no good."

And for a different, less alarmist take–you'd have to go to a different news outlet altogether, because USA Today goes to two right-leaning think tanks for expertise. Here's one:

An Iran expert at the American Enterprise Institute said the mock-up vessel could signal plans for "a new level of effort and sophistication" in Iran's naval training for the use of "unconventional doctrine and capabilities to confront superior US naval power."

And another:

 Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, predicts the mock-up carrier will "make the Iranians look pretty silly, however they plan on using it."

"They are either building this mock-up of a carrier for propaganda purposes in order to substantiate their claim that they can build a carrier, or they are planning (as already reported in the media) to make a propaganda film or spectacle where the carrier is destroyed by Iranian ships, to demonstrate their ability to act on previous threats to destroy US carriers in the Gulf," Eisenstadt said in an e-mail.

After the Times piece ran, Reuters picked up the story (3/23/14)–minus the histrionics. "Iran Says Replica US Aircraft Carrier Is Really a Movie Prop," the news agency reported: 

 A replica of a US aircraft carrier spotted near the coast of Iran is nothing more sinister than a movie set, Iranian media said on Sunday.

USS Vincennes (Wikimedia)

The report went on: 

Iranian newspapers said it was "part of the decor" of a movie being made by the Iranian director Nader Talebzadeh on the 1988 shooting down of an Iran Air civilian plane by the USS Vincennes. The United States says the downing of the plane, which killed all 290 passengers and crew, was an accident.

"The issue has turned into a good excuse for another wave of hype against Iran," said the Alef news website which carries views close to the official line in Iran. "Without any proof or real basis, Western media have jumped again to paint a more negative picture of Iran."

Now, that's not to say this version of the story is necessarily correct. But it makes more sense than the alternative scenarios promoted by the New York Times and USA Today. If someone in Iran were making a movie about the US shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655–an event that understandably looms large in Iranian memory, even if most Americans have forgotten–one would probably want to build a replica of the US ship that launched the attack on the civilian airliner that killed all 290 people on board.

And perhaps that's what is meant by "propaganda value" in US media: Iran might be producing a film about a horrible attack by US forces on a civilian airliner, a story that is basically unknown in the US–where propaganda is done differently. One might say more successfully.

Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra, and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly" (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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