Chris Gelken - in Tehran, Iran
The US Navy's Fifth Fleet has released a statement saying it cannot say with any certainty that threats to blow up its vessels actually came from Iranian Navy speedboats in Sunday's Straits of Hormuz incident that almost sparked a new war. This revelation from his own military is hugely embarrassing for American President George W. Bush.
It tacitly supports the Iranian version of events, in that it was a normal challenge by Iranian naval officials for the US vessels to identify themselves, and at no time was there any serious danger of an escalation or any hostile action.
According to the commander of the Iranian naval forces, the patrol boats were on a regular patrol when they challenged the three American vessels to identify themselves and declare any helicopter activity in the area.
The U.S. quickly released a video showing Iranian speedboats in close proximity to the warships, with audio that the Iranians claimed was fake.
On Thursday the Iranian Navy released its own footage, taken on board one of the speedboats, showing a radio operator making clear requests in English for identification and activity reports.
One of the American vessels can be heard to reply; "This is coalition warship 73, I am operating in international waters."
Shortly after the challenge and the response, the Iranian speedboats left the area.
The incident came as President Bush began his first ever visit to Israel, where he frequently cited the Hormuz incident as further evidence of Iran's belligerence.
The latest U.S. Navy report, however, appears to suggest quite the opposite, and undermines current efforts by Bush to isolate Iran and build an anti-Tehran alliance among its Arab neighbours.
But the question is; Did naval commanders who oppose any new conflict in the Persian Gulf deliberately rob their Commander-in-Chief of a timely stick to beat the Iranians with?
"There may have been tendency among the command levels to assume that those radio messages came from the Iranian boats, and their initial reports were based on their assumptions rather on what their equipment actually told them," said Carl Osgood, a Washington-based writer and political analyst.
"I think one possible reason why the admission was made is because there is concern in the American military command about going to war by accident," he said.
There is resistance among the highest levels of the United States military against a war against Iran, Osgood said, "and that could be a source, or a source, of that admission."
He pointed out that Admiral William Fallon, head of the US Central Command, had expressed his opposition to escalating tension with Iran. Fallon told al-Jazeera television in September, "This constant drum beat of conflict is what strikes me, which is not helpful and not useful. I expect there will be no war and that is what we ought to be working for."
In February 2007, Fallon had expressed strong opposition to the deployment of a third carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf.
According to an article written by respected analyst Gareth Porter and published in May 2007, Fallon had once confided that "there would be no war with Iran while I am head of Central Command."
The electronic warfare and signals intelligence teams on the American warships should, at the very least, have been able to instantly identify the direction and relative distance from source of each and every signal coming in.
Therefore, it is fair to assume that they knew the Iranians were not responsible for the threats even as the first US Navy reports of the incident were being released.
The US Navy's subsequent admission would suggest that rather than being a correction to a report that was made in haste, in the heat of the moment; an order had come down the line to release the real facts of the incident, whether or not they damaged or contradicted statements being made by the President of the United States.
So is Bush, the Commander-in-Chief, losing control of the U.S. military?
Perhaps, given the growing opposition in the armed forces to expanding the war, and the fact that Bush's rhetoric against Iran is frequently at odds with reality.
"What we have to keep in mind is the intention of the Bush administration, particularly from Vice President Dick Cheney that for at least the past two years their intention has been to trigger another war in the region, this time targeting Iran," said Osgood, "and that's the background for this latest incident."
Osgood noted the historical precedents, such as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that broadened America's involvement in South East Asia and the Vietnam War.
"In the United States there is definitely a political faction that is very concerned that this administration is looking for any pretext for war, and it is one of the elements of an impeachment resolution that was introduced into the House a couple of months ago in November, calling for the impeachment and removal from office of Vice President Dick Cheney," Osgood said, "so there are political splits over the question of war with Iran."
* See also, 'Talks not war are key to peace with Iran', The-Latest, World News.