Mine-sweeping exercise in Gulf ends amid rising tensions with Iran

The USS Warrior, a mine countermeasures ship, transits the Arabian Gulf on Sunday during a 12-day anti-mine exercise organized by the U.S. Navy. The multinational operation was a response to Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz following U.S.-led economic sanctions on its nuclear program.


By CRISTINA SILVA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 26, 2012

NAPLES, Italy — After 12 days of hunting down and detonating fake bombs off the Iranian coast, the United States is slated to end a massive, international minesweeping operation Thursday, representing its most significant military response yet to intensifying tensions in the Middle East.

U.S. Navy officials insist the mine-hunting operation was not aimed at any one nation, but Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important oil route, and this week test-fired four anti-ship missiles.

If Iran continues to threaten to close the strait or invest in atomic weapons, military action could be unavoidable, said military analysts in the United States and Middle East.

“When you are doing muscle-flexing, you are hoping your enemy will become more concerned, more afraid, and will reconsider his political stance, and if he doesn’t, then you will need to move to the second level, which is a military confrontation,” said Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

The Iranians, Kahwaji said, “are betting on the fact that the U.S. and the West are economically exhausted and bankrupt and that the public opinion in the West, especially in the U.S., is against wars, and therefore the U.S. administration will not have the guts and the will to do it.”

For months, Iranian leaders have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for U.S.-led economic sanctions targeting its nuclear program. The narrow waterway along Iran’s southern border is a crucial shipping route, with nearly 20 percent of the world’s oil production traveling through it each day.

“The Strait of Hormuz is an international waterway, and it is not helpful for any nation to suggest that it would attempt to restrict traffic through the Strait,” said Lt. Greg Raelson, a spokesman for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain.

It’s unlikely the minesweeping operation will result in softer rhetoric from Iran’s military leaders, who claimed they had fired four ship-sinking missiles into the Persian Gulf during their own preparedness drill this week, according to state-run Press TV.

Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi, commander of the Iranian Navy, said Iran’s missile systems can reach the entire Persian Gulf, including U.S. bases located in the region.

“Over the past years, we have not neglected to enhance our naval capabilities, particularly in the field of mines, and these capabilities are unimaginable to the Americans,” Fadavi said, according to Press TV.

The minesweeping operation saw air and naval forces representing more than 30 nations from four continents work together to identify simulated mine attacks and to re-open maritime routes, Raelson said. Servicemembers representing the United States, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and other nations practiced sea diving, mine hunting, detonation, small boat exercises and refueling throughout the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and Gulf of Aden. Sonar and video systems were used to find the test mines. More than 20 minesweeping, support and patrol vessels participated in the operation, Raelson said.

“The most success would be if these operations, in conjunction with increased sanctions, could persuade the Iranians to make an interesting offer that leads to negotiation for an acceptable compromise” on developing its nuclear capabilities, said Patrick Clawson, director of the Washington Institute’s Iran Security Initiative.

But that might not satisfy Israeli leaders worried that Iran’s nuclear capabilities could soon reach the point of no return.

“There is an argument to be made that the Israelis will be better advised to strike sooner rather than later if they are going to strike,” Clawson said. “If I woke up tomorrow and the news said the Israelis had struck, I would not be shocked.”

Roughly 500 ships sail through the Strait of Hormuz each week, the only waterway connecting oil-rich Arabian Gulf nations to the open ocean. Most of the ships transport oil, with 17 million barrels per day passing through the route in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The blockage of a chokepoint, even temporarily, can lead to substantial increases in total energy costs. In addition, chokepoints leave oil tankers vulnerable to theft from pirates, terrorist attacks, and political unrest in the form of wars or hostilities as well as shipping accidents that can lead to disastrous oil spills,” the administration concluded in an August report.

Iran’s energy sector has been the target of growing sanctions from the international community in recent months, with the European Union’s embargo against its petrochemical products and crude oil going into full force in July.

The global benchmark oil price, known as Brent, was $114.77 per barrel by Aug. 22, a $23 per barrel increase from June, when prices were at their lowest this year. Fuel prices in the United States climbed to $3.94 a gallon in September, the highest price for that month since at least 1993.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders seem unfazed by the sanctions. A recent United Nations report determined Iran had continued to expand its nuclear capabilities and shield its programs from international inspectors. Tehran has said it is not building atomic weapons, and its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Christopher Harmer, a retired Navy commander who served with the 5th Fleet in Bahrain and is now a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project, said the minesweeping operation had done little to ease tensions in the region.

“There is a classic example of a lot of very bad options and not a lot of good ones. Everything we have tried to change the course of Iranian behavior has failed, so we are now at the point where we are validating our military capabilities,” Harmer said. “There are a very limited range of diplomatic and economic measures left.”

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A New Zealand diver tests his undersea skills during an international minesweeping exercise hosted by the U.S. Navy this week in the Middle East. More than 30 countries are participating in the largest anti-mine operation in the region.