With Fake Iranian Ship, Filmmakers Take Realism Overboard

A massive vessel is under construction in the water off Iran. An Iranian filmmaker says the craft, which resembles an aircraft carrier, is just a movie prop, but that hasn't stopped speculation from circulating in the U.S. Eric Schmitt of The New York Times explains the situation.

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Last week, U.S. intelligence services reported a curious sighting in a shipyard in Iran: a near replica of a U.S. nuclear powered aircraft carrier, under construction complete with mock aircraft on the deck. Why would Iran go to such trouble? U.S. officials suggested that the Iranians may intend to blow up the ship for propaganda purposes, a notion that was knocked down by Iranian newspapers over the weekend. According to Iranian news reports, the ship is just a prop for a planned film about the 1988 downing of an Iran air passenger jet by the USS Vincennes.

Here to help us sort through the conflicting accounts is Eric Schmitt of The New York Times. He first reported this story in joins me here in the studio. Welcome.

ERIC SCHMITT: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: First of all, why did U.S. intelligence officials want to make this public, I mean, once they saw this - in what - satellite images?

SCHMITT: Yes. What they've been doing is they're always watching not just the suspected Iranian nuclear sites, most of which are underground. But they're watching Iran's conventional military, particularly their ships, their missiles. Starting last summer, they started noticing something a little bit puzzling going up in this shipyard right on the Persian Gulf. And within a matter of months, they realized that the Iranians were building a mockup of one of their aircraft carriers.

And so, as they watched this thing going up, they fear that the Iranians might someday take this out to sea and use it for target practice. Blow it up, film it and use it for propaganda purposes.

CORNISH: And is this something they've done before? I mean...

SCHMITT: Well, they've use American technology before. They've intercepted small drones called ScanEagles and reversed used them, trying to show that they've captured these kinds of things. So the American military wanted to get out front of the Iranians in case they did want to use this for propaganda, and basically expose them.

CORNISH: Now, we say a mockup, but just how realistic is this ship?

SCHMITT: Well, it's being built in a real shipyard, one of the major shipyards the Iranian Navy uses. It's about two-thirds the size of a Nimitz class aircraft carrier, which is the main carrier that the Navy uses. They're about 1100 feet long, the American version. It's made out of metal, but it doesn't have any kind of nuclear propulsion system as an American aircraft carrier would.

The Iranians seem to be putting a lot of time and effort into this. By late February, the satellite images showed that they had painted, on the flight deck, the markings that aircraft would need to use to take off and land on the carrier deck. And as you mentioned, there are actual mock aircraft onboard this mockup.

CORNISH: At the same time, as we said, the Iranian news reports saying that the ship is basically an elaborate movie prop, based on a real event that did involve a U.S. warship. What do you make of that?

SCHMITT: Hard to believe that, really, given the tensions that have existed between the two countries over the last...

CORNISH: But they're not exactly hiding this...

SCHMITT: No, they're not hiding. That's what...

CORNISH: Right? I mean, it is in plain sight.

SCHMITT: That is one of the mysteries of this, is that unlike, again, their nuclear sites - playing cat and mouse underground with those, this has been in plain sight for American satellites to take pictures of for some time now. But would you actually go to the effort of building something like this in a shipyard, quite costly really compared to a mockup of - a wood mockup that you might want to use otherwise in something like that?

CORNISH: The assumption in your story is that they would create this big mockup just to drag it out to sea and blow it up for propaganda purposes.

SCHMITT: Right.

CORNISH: Is that something the U.S. has seen time and time again in the past? Are there other incidences or videos of things that the Iranians have created just for the purpose of blowing them up and for propaganda?

SCHMITT: Nothing quite this elaborate, Audie, that they would actually build something close to scale to be used in that sense. But the Iranians have used deception before, subterfuge in the Gulf, trying to masking where some of their aircraft and missiles are. So the American officials don't put it beyond them to come up with something like this.

CORNISH: Is this a kind of counterpropaganda for the U.S. to leak it to the press and kind of out them?

SCHMITT: Absolutely. And that's, again, one of the reasons why the Navy wanted to get this news out and the Pentagon wanted to get the news out, was in the event the Iranians did have the intent to use this for propaganda purposes. The U.S. is basically saying: Aha, we've already caught you at your game. No matter what you say from here on out, it's not going to be a very effective propaganda tool.

Of course, American officials also concede that this probably would have only been used internally within Iran, or perhaps some of its allies on the street -the Arab street or the Iranian public. So it may not have ever been intended for use to try and sway the Western opinion; more internal opinion in Iran.

CORNISH: That's reporter Eric Schmitt of The New York Times on reports that Iran is building a mockup of a U.S. nuclear powered aircraft carrier. Thank you so much for coming in to speak with us.

SCHMITT: Thank you.

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