People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 35

September 02, 2012



Persian Gulf: Unsafe for Fishing


Yohannan Chemarapally


THE shooting of an innocent Indian fisherman by armed personnel aboard an US Navy ship in the waters of the coast of Dubai is another illustration of the trigger happy disposition of the Obama administration. The US has been continuing with its military build-up in the Persian Gulf region from the beginning of the year as it seeks to confront Iran. A virtual American army has been deployed in the area around the nearby strategic Straits of Hormuz, a vital shipping lane for international commerce.




The shooting incident which took place in the second week of July resulted in the death of Arumugam Sekhar, a young man hailing from Periyapattinam located in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamilnadu. He, like millions of his compatriots, was earning his livelihood in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), working as a fisherman for a Dubai based company. Three other fishermen, from the same Tamilnadu, were seriously injured when their tiny boat came under fire from the US Navy supply ship, USNS Rappahannock, 16 km off the UAE port of Jebel Ali and 35 km southwest of the city of Dubai. The Jebel Ali port is the seventh busiest port in the world and at any given time there is a lot of commercial traffic either heading towards the port or leaving it. 


An US Navy spokesman wasted no time in claiming that the boat had “disregarded non-lethal warnings and rapidly approached the US ship.” The American Navy’s spokesman also claimed that the naval fleet deployed in the Gulf has “an inherent right to self-defence against lethal threats.”


The surviving fishermen on board, which included two UAE nationals, completely denied the American version of events and said that they were fired on with heavy calibre weapons without warning. The UAE authorities have also said that the fishing boat was well within the country’s maritime borders. Dubai’s police chief, Dahi Khalfan Tamim, told the media that the “primary investigation confirms that the boat was in its right course and did not pose any danger. The shooting was clearly a mistake.” He also added that preliminary investigations showed that the fishing vessel received no warning from the American ship.


Muthu Muniraj, one of the survivors, told Reuters: “We had no warning at all from the ship. We were speeding up to try and go around them and then suddenly we got fired at. We know warning sounds and signs, and there were none. It was very sudden.” The survivors of the attack told the media that the American ship quickly sailed away, leaving the bullet ridden boat and the injured to their fate. Nicholas Davis, who heads a private firm providing maritime security, told the media that the US ship had enough time to launch a fast intercept boat to stop the fishing boat before it came too close to the ship. He emphasised that there was no real threat from either terror outfits or pirates in an area so close to the Dubai coast.


The Indian ambassador to the UAE, M K Lokesh, said that the fishermen involved in the tragic incident told him that no warning was given to them by the American ship. But he hastened to add that there “are many versions of the incident. We have to wait for details to emerge.”


Two Indian fishermen were killed off the Kerala coast on February 15 when their boat came under fire from an Italian merchant ship. At least, the two Italian marines responsible for the deaths are now facing trial in an Indian court. As for the latest incident, the Indian government seems to have accepted the American claim that their Navy had acted in self-defence and given them the benefit of the doubt. Neither the Indian nor the UAE government has bothered to issue a strong diplomatic protest with Washington. The Indian external affairs minister, S M Krishna, merely described the incident as “unfortunate” while noting that the UAE authorities have taken the matter to the local court and “are proceeding according to the laws of the country.”




The Dubai police are treating the case as that of murder. The Tamilnadu chief minister, J Jayalalitha has sought the intervention of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, requesting that he take up the issue with Washington. She wants the Indian government to demand compensation for the families of the deceased and injured fishermen. “As the dead and injured were innocent fishermen who were conducting fishing in the sea only for their livelihood, please ensure that justice is rendered,” the Tamilnadu chief minister wrote in her letter to the prime minister. An American commentator, Daniel McAdams, wrote that one Indian fisherman was killed and three injured “because they chose to fish in the Persian Gulf that is increasingly crowded with US warships, amped up, trigger happy and ready to start World War III.”


The American armed forces have a long and proven track record of shooting first and asking questions later. There have been many such recent instances in Iraq and Afghanistan. In earlier wars in Korea and Vietnam, American troops were responsible for even more horrendous crimes. Some reports in the US media said that the US Navy’s action against the UAE owned fishing vessel was a warning to Iran and non-state actors like Al Qaeda to stay away from American ships. The “Gulf of Tonkin” incident staged by the US administration was the prelude to the Vietnam War which started in the sixties.


The suicide boat attack on the USS Cole, a US Navy Destroyer that was docked in Aden in 2000, is the reason being given for the hyper sensitivity being displayed by the Obama administration on the high seas. “Since 2000, we have been very concerned about small boats,” a Pentagon official said after the Dubai incident. The anti-piracy campaign which is now being spearheaded by western navies has given a carte blanche to marines and other army personnel on board merchant ships to open fire at suspicious looking boats or ordinary fishermen. The Italian marines involved in the killing of the Kerala fishermen allegedly mistook their victims for Somali pirates.


With the Pentagon announcing plans in mid-July to further reinforce the American military presence in the Persian Gulf, the chances of other fishing boats getting into harms way will only increase.  An additional aircraft carrier, USS John C Stennis along with more fighter jets have been deployed. The US is using F-22 fighter jets in the region. Two other aircraft carriers, the USS Enterprise and Abraham Lincoln, are already in the Persian Gulf. A fourth aircraft carrier, the USS Eisenhower, is also on its way to the Gulf. The US Navy has started a mine sweeping exercise in the area deploying many more ships for the exercise. The situation could spin out of control if an Iranian fishing boat or a naval patrol boat comes in the US line of fire in the Persian Gulf.


The government of Iran considers the military presence of the US in the Persian Gulf as a hostile and illegitimate act in the first place. According to Finian Cunningham, a specialist on the region, the recent attack on the UAE fishing boat and the killing of one of its Indian crew “not only raises questions about criminal disregard for civilian life but it also points out to the Pentagon’s reckless militarisation of the strategic waterway.” Before the killing of the Indian fishermen, the US Navy had put its personnel on “hair trigger alert” to respond to alleged threats.




Washington is no longer interested in finding a diplomatic solution to the long running impasse with Iran. The last round of talks between the P5+1 group and Iran, held in Moscow in June, ended in failure with Teheran refusing to concede to the West’s demand that it end its 20 per cent uranium enrichment and ship its existing stockpile out of the country. Iran was willing to concede to some of the key demands provided the West was prepared to ease up on its sanctions. Because of sanction the Iranian currency has deprecated drastically and rampant inflation is impacting on the lives of ordinary Iranians. Oil exports had contributed to 80 per cent of the government’s public revenues. India, Japan, South Korea and China have all cut their oil imports from Iran under pressure from Washington. India till recently was Iran’s second largest customer. Now it has slipped to the third place. South Korea and Japan have completely stopped their oil imports from Iran in July.


The latest EU sanctions have deprived Iranian ships off insurance cover. Companies in Europe dominate the maritime insurance business. For Iran, sanctions constitute an undeclared war. The Obama administration, with regime change in mind, is no longer offering any carrots to the Iranian government as it slowly but surely tries to strangle the Iranian economy. Teheran, from all available indications, seems prepared to defend its sovereign rights. The Iranian central bank’s governor, Mahmoud Bahmani, said that his country has 50 billion dollars in foreign currency reserves. This will help Iran weather the current round of draconian sanctions.


Iran has now drafted a bill that will stop the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz to countries that have imposed sanctions on it. Iran wants to send a signal to the international community that it has the power to make sanctions bite both ways. Much of the oil flowing through the Straits of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are bound for western markets, especially Europe. Any disruption of supplies would precipitate a steep hike in oil prices and could deal a death blow to the faltering European economies. Some 35 per cent of the world’s maritime oil exports pass through the Straits of Hormuz.