Iran, U.S. officials say, is currently at work building a nonworking replica of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. From the sounds of it, the American intelligence community hasn't quite figured out why Iran is going through the trouble to do that, but the working theory appears to be: so they can blow it in a propaganda stunt. Or, as the New York Times gloriously put it this morning, "presumably for some mysteriously bellicose purposes":
Intelligence analysts studying satellite photos of Iranian military installations first noticed the vessel rising from the Gachin shipyard, near Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, last summer. The ship has the same distinctive shape and style of the Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers, as well as the Nimitz’s number 68 neatly painted in white near the bow. Mock aircraft can be seen on the flight deck.
The Iranian mock-up, which American officials described as more like a barge than a warship, has no nuclear propulsion system and is only about two-thirds the length of a typical 1,100-foot-long Navy carrier. Intelligence officials do not believe that Iran is capable of building an actual aircraft carrier.
The most likely scenario, U.S. officials say, is that Iran's Navy plans to eventually tow its new toy out to sea where they'll blow it up—video footage of which would then surely end up on state-run television. Iran has pulled similar stunts before, according to the U.S., although it doesn't appear to have gone to such detailed lengths before. (And details, you might remember, aren't always Iran's strong suit when it comes to propaganda.)
"Based on our observations, this is not a functioning aircraft carrier; it’s a large barge built to look like an aircraft carrier," Cmdr. Jason Salata, a spokesman for the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, told the paper. "We’re not sure what Iran hopes to gain by building this. If it is a big propaganda piece, to what end?"
Making the entire model-building exercise that much more puzzling is the fact that Iran doesn't appear to have taken any significant steps to keep the project under wraps, building it in an open-air shipyard that is regularly monitored by Western satellites. While U.S. officials say they're not that worried about the propaganda potential of the fake aircraft carrier, they nonetheless decided they needed to go public with what they knew (and what they didn't) to, in the words of the Times, "get out ahead of the Iranians," suggesting that they're at least a little unnerved by the whole thing.
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