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Analysis: Naval incident provokes Iran, US media spat

BBC Monitoring

By Saeed Barzin of BBC Monitoring on 10 January

It is not yet clear what happened when Iranian Revolution Guards speedboats intercepted US naval vessels near the southern Iranian coast on 6 January. Iran and the US have both released short edited videos of the incident but their versions are different.

However, it is clear that the two sides put great significance on media campaigns in the digital environment. The fact that both sides had professional video crews recording their daily operations and were prepared to release the data and some videos quickly went as far as YouTube testifies to this.

The media coverage of the incident also shows how the dangers that lurk in the background are being played out almost real time.

There is always the possibility of an unintended clash spiralling out of control. In 1988, a US warship in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iran Air civilian aircraft, killing the 290 people on board. The US Navy said it mistook the plane for a jet fighter,! while Iran said the downing was intentional.

One incident: Two stories The Americans and Iranians have produced two different versions of the incident. The American video shows aggressive manoeuvring by Iranian speedboats and threats to blow up a US vessel.

The Iranian video shows routine communications between an Iranian naval boat and coalition warship 73 - with the former requesting location and the latter insisting it is in international waters.

The video tapes could be different parts of the same incident but both releases are noticeably edited, and what happened before or after the events shown is not known.

In terms of technical quality, the Iranian version is clearer and the communication between the radio operators more audible. Iran has accused the US of fabricating its video.

Media campaign

Irrespective of the political aspects, Iran has shown an ability to wage sophisticated media campaigns, as was the case with the March 2007 detention of British naval personnel by Iranian forces.

Iran saw the media handling of the 2007 incident as a propaganda coup which shifted the public debate inside Iran away from concerns over UN Security Council resolutions against Tehran and possible US military action against it.

The government, with the support of the state-controlled television, led an intense campaign over the affair, which climaxed in a live press conference by President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad, where he announced the release of the British naval personnel.

In whose interest?

Ordinary Iranians will watch the story unfold on Iranian TV channels, but the many who have access to satellite television will also learn of the American interpretation of the events.

No public reaction has yet been monitored on Iranian media. But the situation is complicated by the fact that the incident could be interpreted to be in the interests of either Iran or the US.

The US administration could use the incident as evidence to say that Iran is a local threat that must be dealt with.

On the other hand, the incident could be seen to serve Iranian interests, since it shows that the Islamic Republic can challenge the "imperialist" US navy with its speedboats and get away with it.

Source: BBC Monitoring research 10 Jan 08



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