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US-Iranian naval clash: Radio trolls probably to blame

'Filipino Monkey' strikes again

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Analysis Those readers who follow the non-IT'n'Paris news will be aware that in recent days a group of US warships almost fired on fast boats operated by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This was after hearing radio transmissions in which the Iranians appeared to threaten some form of attack.

A heavily-accented voice speaking in English during the incident said "I am coming to you... you will explode after a few minutes."

Reportedly, this caused a certain amount of discomfort for the Americans, worried that perhaps they were about to be subjected to hostile fire - or perhaps a devastating suicide-boat strike of the sort which badly damaged USS Cole in 2000 and the tanker Limburg in 2002.

The US Navy subsequently released a video of the incident, which seems to back up the view of a dangerous confrontation with provocative threats issued. The Iranians angrily called the vid a forgery, saying the threat had been dubbed in.

Here it is courtesy of YouTube, for those who didn't see it:

Now, in a further twist, the US navy has admitted that it actually doesn't know who transmitted the threat, and it certainly can't be sure it was the Iranians.

According to ABC News, a Navy spokesman came out with a beautiful quote:

We cannot make a direct connection to the boats... It could have come from the shore, from another ship passing by... I guess we're not saying that it absolutely came from the boats, but we're not saying it absolutely didn't.

Just to offer a bit of background, your correspondent has transited the Straits of Hormuz with the Royal Navy (a few years ago now), and in fact the idea that a third party made the threat as a prank is entirely plausible.

Anyone who has spent time bridge watchkeeping at sea east of the Suez Canal will be aware of what's known as the "Filipino Monkey" phenomenon. All ships at sea are required to maintain a listening watch on VHF marine channel 16, so as to hear distress messages, collision warnings or other calls. It's the equivalent of the Star Trek "hailing frequencies", as it were. However, you aren't supposed to just blot out channel 16 with chitchat - if you want to hold a conversation or something the correct form is to change channels after establishing comms on 16. In that way, the primary channel stays open for urgent stuff.

In northern waters, this is what happens. Once you get down into points south and east, the knowledge that large numbers of people absolutely have to listen to you - like it or not, as a requirement of maritime law and professional seamanship - seemingly becomes an irresistible temptation for a lot of people in possession of VHF sets.

The most popular phrase used by these people is "Filipino Monkey", said by salty old seafarers to have started out as an insult against Filipinos but now just meaning "I'm bored and want to piss a lot of watchstanders off".

At other times, people will offer karaoke-style musical offerings, brilliant gambits such as "I f*ck your mother/sister/dog", "look out I am going to hit [collide with] you, ha ha" etc. In many ways it's a lot like the internet, but sadly you can't - as a professional seaman - turn it off.

Another major form of airwave pollution on VHF channels is Western - typically US - warships reading out standardised warnings as required by rules of engagement or legal procedure. "Vessel on my port bow this is US/NATO/coalition warship... please keep clear/stop and be boarded in accordance with UN security council resolution blah-blah/be aware I am engaged in flight operations/be warned I will open fire if you do not comply/etc.".

Out in the Gulf and such places this often draws a storm of "Filipino monkey" style comment, very often from vessels nowhere near.

It sounds absolutely 100 per cent believable to me that some rapier wit down in the Straits, hearing the Americans asking the Pasdaran* to keep clear, decided to chip in for a laugh. In fact it sounds more likely than one of the Iranian speedboat crews making the transmission, especially with the recent comparative chillout of the US-Iranian who's-the-most-evil diplomatic flame war.

What's puzzling is that nobody in the Pentagon seems to have considered this at all before releasing the video. Nor did the Iranians when they slammed it afterwards.

Or perhaps both sides actually did know all this, but they just like shouting at each other. ®

*What the Revolutionary Guards are called in Iran.

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