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U.S. Naval Exercises Send Message In The Tense Gulf

Sep 24, 2012
Originally published on October 4, 2012 11:44 am

The U.S. military, along with more than 30 allied countries, has just launched a new round of naval exercises in the Persian Gulf at a time when tensions in the region are running particularly high.

But U.S. officials say the aim is not to increase anxiety, but rather to ensure stability. More specifically, the exercises are designed to deal with mines that could hamper shipping in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world's oil supply transits.

Iran has said if it is attacked, it will close the Strait of Hormuz. U.S. Cmdr. Jason Salata, spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, says the Navy's confidence is high that it can deal with any threat to navigation.

"I wouldn't put a timeline to it, but I think that this exercise demonstrates that," Salata says. "I mean, there's more than 30 countries here, and I think that signals a strong resolve from the international community to go after the threat."

The Navy won't name a specific threat, but everyone here knows it's a message for Iran.

Bahraini official Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al Khalifa says all of Iran's neighbors have a keen interest in what happens to that country's nuclear facilities, such as the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant just across the gulf from Bahrain.

"That nuclear plant is closer to Bahrain than it is to Tehran," Khalifa says. "I think what these minesweeping exercises say to Iran is that the whole world is here to make sure that the waters of the Gulf will remain open and safe."

Israeli Warnings

The scenario riveting the attention of people in the region at the moment involves an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear installations.

Michael Elleman, a Bahrain-based analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says if Israel does strike, without U.S. involvement and without leaving a huge death toll, Iran may well offer a limited retaliation.

Elleman says Iran is well aware that drawing the Americans into a conflict — by laying mines in the Gulf, for instance — could have rapidly escalating consequences.

"Once they start, if the Americans have to clear mines, they may feel compelled to clear the anti-shipping missiles that are arrayed along the shores of the Strait of Hormuz," Elleman says. "If they do that, do they have to take out the air defense forces? So Iran, by taking one small step, risks multiple steps in response."

Analysts say the balance of power in any fight is clear.

Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, says the U.S. and its allies would certainly overwhelm the Iranians. But that's not to say Iran could not inflict damage with an asymmetric warfare strategy.

"They have deployed a lot of fast crafts, equipped with either torpedoes or surface-to-surface missiles, or to be used in suicide attacks," Kahwaji says. "They have a number of Russian-built submarines and indigenous-built midget submarines ... these are the ones that pose the most serious threat."

An Unpredictable Region

Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, says logic and realism suggest that an attack on Iran is not imminent. But in the Middle East, he adds, logic and realism do not always prevail. That's why, he says, Gulf states watched so closely as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to insert himself into the American presidential campaign.

"I think the Israelis try to pressurize the American administration," Alani says, "either to embarrass the administration, showing that they are not doing enough to stop the Iranians, or they are trying to basically secure a commitment from [the] Obama administration, that after the election the Americans could give a green light."

Israel's heightened rhetoric, meanwhile, has been more than matched by Iran's.

Over the weekend, an Iranian Republican Guard officer said Israel, which he described as a "shameful and cancerous tumor," is seeking war, but it's not clear when.

Analysts say such messages might be intended for hard-liners at home, but as tensions in the region increase, even rhetoric meant for domestic political consumption can have unintended and deadly consequences.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour with the specter of military conflict with Iran. That's high on the agenda, as world leaders gather in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. In a few minutes, we'll hear the worrisome outcome of a game, a war game between the U.S. and Iran, organized here in Washington.

BLOCK: But first, to the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is in the midst of military exercises. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Bahrain on how tensions with Iran are playing out in the Gulf.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf aren't new. Iranian state television regularly airs footage of the Iranian navy demonstrating its prowess.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

KENYON: But the Western naval exercises going on now aren't about dramatic explosions. They're designed to practice neutralizing the threat of mines in the Gulf in the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world's oil supply must transit.

Iran has said if it's attacked, it will close the strait. Commander Jason Salata, spokesman for the Fifth Fleet, says the Navy's confidence is high that it can deal with any threat to navigation.

COMMANDER JASON SALATA: I wouldn't put a timeline to it, but I think that this exercise demonstrates that. I mean, there's more than 30 countries here, and I think that signals a strong resolve on the international community to go after the threat.

KENYON: The Navy won't name a specific threat, but everyone here knows it's a message for Iran. Bahraini official Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al Khalifa(ph) says all Iran's neighbors have a keen interest in what happens to that country's nuclear facilities, such as the Bushehr plant just across the gulf from Bahrain.

SHEIKH ABDUL-AZIZ AL KHALIFA: That nuclear plant is closer to Bahrain than it is to Tehran. I think what these minesweeping exercises say to Iran is that the whole world is here to make sure that the waters of the gulf will remain open and safe.

KENYON: The scenario riveting the attention of people in the region at the moment involves an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear installations. Michael Elleman, a Bahrain-based analyst for The International Institute for Strategic Studies, says if Israel does strike - without U.S. involvement and without leaving a huge death toll - Tehran may well offer a limited retaliation. He says Iran is well aware that drawing the Americans into a conflict - by laying mines in the Gulf, for instance - could have rapidly escalating consequences.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Once they start, if the Americans have to clear mines, they may feel compelled to clear the anti-shipping missiles that are arrayed along the shores of the Strait of Hormuz. If they do that, do they have to take out the air defense forces? So Iran, by taking one small step, risks multiple steps in response.

KENYON: Analysts say the balance of power in any fight is clear. Riad Kahwaji, at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, says the U.S. and its allies would certainly overwhelm the Iranians. But that's not to say Iran could not inflict damage with an asymmetric warfare strategy.

RIAD KAHWAJI: They have deployed a lot of fast crafts, equipped with either torpedoes or surface-to-surface missiles, or to be used in suicide attacks. They have a number of Russian-built submarines and indigenous-built midget submarines. I mean, these are the ones that pose the most serious threat, you know?

KENYON: Mustafa Alani, security analyst with the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, says logic and realism suggest that an attack on Iran is not imminent. But in the Middle East, he adds, logic and realism do not always prevail. That's why, he says, gulf states watched so closely as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to insert himself into the American presidential campaign.

DR. MUSTAFA ALANI: I think the Israelis try to pressurize the American administration, either to embarrass the administration, showing that they are not doing enough, or they're trying to basically secure a commitment from Obama administration, that after election, that the American could give a green light.

KENYON: Israel's heightened rhetoric, meanwhile, has been more than matched by Iran's. Over the weekend, an Iranian republican guard officer said Israel, which he described as a quote, "shameful and cancerous tumor," is seeking war, but it's not clear when.

Analysts say such messages may be intended for hard-liners at home. But as tensions in the region increase, even rhetoric meant for domestic political consumption can have unintended and deadly consequences. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Bahrain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.