January 22, 2008

The US, Iran and a monkey

With the Pentagon now blaming an incident between the US and Iranian naval ships on the 'Filipino Monkey,' stories of the elusive character on the high seas turn foreign policy into a colorful circus.

Image: WikipediaCommentary by Ben Judah with additional reporting by James Schneider for ISN Security Watch (21/01/08)

The timing could not have better. With US President George W Bush in the middle of his Near East tour drumming up support for sanctions and possible military action against Iran, a naval incident occurred in the Persian Gulf 6 January.

During the incident, an American naval convoy of three ships were reportedly harassed by a group of Iranian speedboats that drew menacingly close to the US ships before dropping "suspicious boxes" into the water. Video of the incident released by the Pentagon included audio of an odd sounding, almost robotic voice warning "You will explode in few [...]minutes." It was presumed by those who viewed the video provided by the US that the audio message was from Iran, with news channels calling it as a direct threat from the naval unit - just as the US Navy had announced. For Bush and those around him favoring military action against Tehran, this was capitalized on immediately.

However, no sooner had the Pentagon released its videotape of the incident questions were asked. Why was it that several video clips had been edited together, and among other inconsistencies, how could the threatening voice sound so unlike an Iranian officer, or even a human being?

Tehran quickly responded by releasing its own clip of the incident: a single piece of footage with a serviceman reciting the usual maritime protocol in a business-like manner. Yet in Washington, the threat from Iran had been rapidly talked up by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, remarking that the incident stressed the seriousness of the situation between the US and Iran.

But, in an astonishing about face, according an article in Navy Times the Pentagon claimed that it was possible that the Iranians might not have been behind the automated threat after all. Officials opened up the chance that it might in fact have been the "Filipino Monkey," a renowned heckler who reportedly has been jamming radio signals and abusing ships for years.

Strangely enough, this heckler, renowned as he is said to be, is almost completely unmentioned on major internet services such as Google News before 6 January. The only recent reports involving the Filipino Monkey found online before that date include one by a Russian sailor in which he recalls being verbally abused in a radio message from someone who supposedly was the Filipino Monkey, and another by a Spanish sailor who recalled a similar incident off the coast of Angola. These are just two mentions in a vast pool of marine commentators who fail to say anything about the heckler at all.

However, a search of the Google News archives shows four articles published by US news services in the late 1980s that mention a mysterious radio-jacker who in a "sing-song voice" taunted ships in the Gulf and even provoked a tense exchange between US and Iranian ships by screaming "Iranians, you're going to get it now." He is noted in the scarce and never first-hand reporting as having a strong dislike of the Islamic Republic.

The Filipino Monkey incident is just a further example of the dubious methods of the US government as it tries to push its Middle East agenda. With the Pentagon being happy to blame the Iranians without properly verifying the origin of the voice, then backtracking by using the "renowned Gulf heckler" to justify a piece of fear-mongering that went wrong, the US' cause for action against Iran has been deeply undermined.

The Islamic Republic remains a serious problem to the international community, but when the US behaves as recklessly as in this case, the coalition slowly being built up in favor of sanctions begins to question its judgment. How can European governments trust their American ally on the single most crucial strategic threat emerging in the Middle East after an incident like this?

The Pentagon seems satisfied with blaming the incident on the mysterious Filipino Monkey. For the rest of us, however, he remains a deeply suspicious, perhaps even fictitious figure.

As it stands the Filipino Monkey appears to glare at us like an absurd sailor's myth the Pentagon has picked up upon to justify the tough questions about it's fear-mongering video from the Gulf it couldn't provide the answers for.

Ben Judah is a correspondent for ISN Security Watch. He is based in London.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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