Gulfs of Meaning

Of course, it didn’t help that tensions have escalated between Washington and Tehran since the Trump administration promptly withdrew from the nuclear agreement that the previous administration had very laboriously negotiated with Iran, and demonized Iran after it withdrew in 2018.  Trump’s declaration that Iran has shown itself to be “ready for war,” and that “Iran made a very big mistake” of showing such “aggression,” however, ramped up the rhetoric in response, trying to find aggression in every corner, especially if it meant a potential tattering of the map of American dominance in patrolling or policing traffic in the Gulf.

The blurring of what constitutes international waters in the Persian Gulf or Gulf of Oman is particularly pressing these days, with American allies in the gulf offering their waterspace and airspace to American troops and aircraft carriers who, while nominally remaining in international waters, seem to act as guards to preserve the nominal international status of these densely trafficked waters through which so many trillions of barrels of oil have flowed–and stand to surpass five miliion per day for Saudi Aramco alone–in ways that stand to make it the energy umbilicus of petrochemical futures or the Garden of Eden of petroleum in the global imaginaries of western industrialized nations of the First and Second World. Is the stoppage of flow of such oil a classic First World Problem?

The Strait was anthropomorphized by U.S. Energy Information Administration through the media to suggest that a brutal martial art has been applied to cease the presumed flow of oil that has become so much of a vital fluid for much of the globalized world from the many tankers that arrive in the Gulf Waters to constitute an obstruction to the state of worldly affairs–or inherited image of universal peace, or status quo, whose disturbance stands to shock the order of things, just as U.S. refineries reached their peak productivity, standing to deflate an overinflated world economy. In an infographic map that the news–from Bloomberg on–seems to have lapped up with eagerness–the notion of a “transit chokepoint” implies that Iran has deviously applied a “strangle-hold” to our oil, immediately telegraphed a powerful geographical metaphor implying global interests faced affront from crafty Iranians who exploited a point of national vulnerability on account of the chance of their geographical location.

U.S. Energy Administration/June 20, 2019

The image of the “transit chokepoint” was converted to a simple “chokepoint” that attacks on oil tankers provoked an elevation of regional tensions–if we all knew that the tensions were global, and linked intrinsically to a global energy economy, and the possibility of an unforeseen rise in global energy prices if not global recession. 25, 2019

The local, in other words, became the epicenter of a possible global economic crisis, of the sort of which the Trump administration has not yet faced, even as the U.S. President is championing the success of the national economy. As June 16 led many to wonder whether the global economy was about to face an unexpected oil price surge that would come on the heals of a quarter century of continued economic growth of the industrialized nations, and fears that Iran was practicing retribution for American economic sanctions that it has since only extended like a vise-grip in a show of national economic power, fears of a shock on the global economy sprung from the region where both oil tankers had holes blown in their hull’s starboard side, immediately increasing fears of the fragility of central banks, and fears that American hawkishness toward Iran might boomerang on the global economy–even as the narrative of Iranian aggression became increasingly difficult to sustain. The fear of a coming global crisis increased a sense of instability, even before the Global Hawk was downed.

With the level of trust just not where it might be in the region, and Washington working to cut of Iranian oil sales at every opportunity, suspicions were high when the Iranian government spotted–or believed they spotted–an unmarked drone in their own airspace. The sin of this one attack was considerable, even if the maps seemed unable to lie–and the evidence of the drone strike, shown as if it should be subsumed into the previous “attacks” on oil tankers, suggest the opening of a theater of war in waters that are far from those of the United States, but, by a nifty trick of globalization, seem to suddenly be national security interests.


We were assured the Saudi’s could “keep the oil flowing” even in the face of these apparent disruptions

It hardly helps that tankers had so recently been attacked, of course, in the very same Strait, as they travelled in what one suspects were international waters. The clustering of oil tankers dotting the Strait from around Dubai, indeed, made it hard to determine where one wanted to police the safety of other tankers, and how that ensuring of safety could be conducted while remaining strictly outside the “national waters” of Iran–given the odd remove of “territory” from land, echoed in the quite dissonance between the misleading inset map of “Iran” in relation to “Saudi Arabia,” and the location of what Iran calls its airspace, defined in this case by proximity to Kooh Mobarak, whose location has probably never assumed such telling salience in an event of truly international consequence.

The Strait is undeniably central to a global energy trade. For over a fifth of all tradable oil circulating on a global market passes through the same Strait of Hormuz; securing transit of tankers in this narrow passageway of the Persian Gulf is of global significance, and patrolling the sources of attacks on oil tankers has become a military goal that seems more tantamount than others to national security risks that Trump has argued are part of his presidential mandate to Make America Great Again, even when far from American frontiers, save in the most globalized of worlds. The Gulf was mapped, in other words, not only by different sorts of instruments–incursions of international airspace tracked and detected by radar or remote monitoring of an unmanned drone at above 20,000 feet–but by different geoepistemologies of the Gulf as a narrow international lane of shipping, or as a frontier of sovereign defenses.

And so, Trump’s vision of America has become that of American interests in the most globalized of worlds, at least as it relates to the energy interests that Trump has taken as an extension of American droits de seigneur over the Persian Gulf. When an American destroyer fired openly on the Iranian craft that are suspiciously present in large numbers in the Strait, and the plans to send not one but two American aircraft carriers to the region, and placed bombers on “high alert,” sought to send a sign of intent to prevent future attacks on tankers who passed through the Strait.

Iranian Foreign Minister/NextZen/OSM/HERE/

The vision of American security was not, to be sure, specific to this President. The advisers of the President John Bolton and Mike Pompeo seem to have eagerly urged Trump to hit Iran’s nuclear program, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu long fantasized, and the belief this could be done without congressional authorization led to American air strikes uranium enrichment plants, a uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, and a Arak reactor, which precipitated placement of land mines in the Strait–and, after the drone was shot down, Trump was ready to strike at at least three targets, and had already approved such strikes, even as even as Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif posted maps tracking the actual position and course of the drone up to where it was downed on TwitterTrump’s own medium!–to show the world “the path, location and point of impact” of the drone, using social media as a surrogate court of public opinion, given a lack of any accord, to establish a “there can be no doubt” about the vessel’s course, violation of Iranian airspace (indicated by a red line) and where it was brought down, with hexadecimal precision.

Zarif was particularly canny in his own use of twitter and social media, in fact, almost beating Trump at his own game or in his own domain, as he tweeted out alternate maps of his own sense of the incursion of Iranian airspace, in ways that seem to surprise Americans by appealing to the new Kangaroo court of public opinion, affording clear maps of the manner in which remotely piloted American drones had provocatively skirted Iranian airspace, as if they were masters of their own domain in flying over Gulf waters–

–and of the airspace that they seemed intent on daunting Iranians at their control over Gulf waters that they sought to patrol. Zarif noted tersely, “At 00:14 US drone took off from UAE in stealth mode & violated Iranian airspace. It was targeted at 04:05 at the coordinates (25°59’43″N 57°02’25″E) near Kouh-e Mobarak.” He concluded a following tweet: “There can be no doubt about where the vessel was when it was brought down.”

(Is the problem that Trump and his generals are brainwashed in terms of what they think stealth mode means? Trump appears to promote super-stealth technologies of weapons the United States sells to its allies as the F-35 fighter as literally invisible to enemies–“incredible plane. It’s stealth—you can’t see it. So when I talk to even people from the other side, they’re trying to order our plane. They like the fact that you can’t see it. . . . Stealth, super stealth. The best in the world. We make the best military equipment in the world.”– promoting the invisible advantages of invisibility to the naked eye in what may suggest a trickle-down imbecility in the U.S. Army that has been reiterated up to six times in the past year to a range of rallies and veterans’ meetings, and at corporate events at Lockheed Martin, once even proclaiming  “there’s an F-35 stealth fighter on the South Lawn,” and added, “It’s special — can’t see it!”). Trump was so proud of “buying billions and billions of dollars worth of that beautiful F-35” that he promoted globally as “invisible” planes purveyed a new metaphor of a myth of global invisibility, as the Global Hawk, promoting the low observable fighter plane as not able to be mapped, and hence not “seen” by the enemy–though that is only until the technology of the enemy’s radar systems improve.

$100M Stealth F-35 fighter plane beside an F-16 whose pilot tracks it

But such claims for stealth are never so simple, but science fiction myths of global invulnerability designed by a snake oil salesman. Meanwhile, Washington D.C., far removed, appears ready to guarantee the flight path was within international airspace–U.S. military’s Central Command spokesperson Navy Capt. Bill Urban assured the world that “Iranian reports that the aircraft was over Iran are false,” from Washington, DC–leading President Trump to act all POTUS and insist that “this country will not stand for it,” and that “you’ll soon find out” if the United States will strike in retaliation–before allowing that it “may have been a mistake.” But the mistake may be far more likely to have lain in the expectations of the remote pilots of the drone, and perhaps in the relative lack of concern with which they worried about maintaining the fancy piece of hardware that the army had invested over $200 million–less than ten miles of the planned US-Mexico border wall, to be sure, but a significant technological investment to loose.

“Iran made a very big mistake,” June 20, 2019

The brinksmanship in which Trump seemed to be engaged in, before reevaluating the situation, seemed too seek to cow Iran into a retraction of a systematic plan to threaten its borders–as Minister Zarif for his part only delighted in demonstrating, even if its own borders and sovereignty were quite removed, underlining just how far that Trump insisted on interfering in the airspace of a region quite geographically far removed–even as he blamed the United States for attributing the attacks on tankers to Iran, and only a cover for sustained “economic terrorism.”

Javad Zarif on Twitter, June 22, 2019

Foreign Minister Zarif provided to the twittersphere on “the visual detail on the path, location, and point of impact of the U.S. military drone Iran shot down on Thursday” confirmed that the drone was indeed skirting and then flying within Iranian airspace. The sense that it had skirted and entered Iranian airspace The drone that had departed from an aircraft carrier in the Southern Persian Gulf, having extinguished all identifying equipment, was taken as a spy plane, which it probably may well have been, doing reconnoissance on Iranian shores. Iran’s Supreme National Security Council is quoted as saying “Our airspace is our red line and Iran has always responded and will continue to respond strongly to any country that violates our airspace,” according to Tasnim news agency., insisting on a red line of sovereign defense.

The actual maps that Zarif continued to tweet out after the event showed the extent which remotely piloted drones continued to taunt Iranians by skirting the acknowledged bounds of Iranian airspace, even as America accused Iranians of having sabotaged oil-laden tankers’ traffic in the Gulf, as if to guarantee the escape of energy sources extracted from the Gulf region to the rest of the world, and secure its entrance into global energy markets, as much as the inviolability of Iranian airspace When Trump suggests that the targeting of the drone way have been due to a “mistake made by someone who shouldn’t have been doing that,” as Trump said in his later attempt to forgive what he claimed to have found it hard to believe was not due to “human error” alone; far more likely is the lack of intention and human error of the remote pilot of the drone, who in Zarif’s map sent the U.S. drone straight into Iranian airspace, infringing upon it lightly after looping back over Hormuz before entering it a bit more to get a better view of Iran’s coast.

The maps did not really display a historically new extent of American drones’ previous incursion into national airspace, for all that, but they announced the abilities of Iran to reach–and down–fancy hardware that was flying close to its shores, even when its deployment was forcing an expansion in what the U.S. military had mapped their capacities. In short, the event pointed to a new ability of Iranian Revolutionary Guard to map the presence of surveillance drones, and their ability to down drones who did not respond to or identify their actions.

1 Comment

Filed under drone strikes, drone warfare, globalization, Middle East, Persian Gulf

One response to “Gulfs of Meaning

  1. David Frick

    I love all this. There are map people and non-map people, and I’ve definitely become one of the former!

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