DUBAI: Naval forces from more than 30 countries were engaged in a massive minesweeping exercise in the Gulf Monday, U.S. officials said, amid Iranian threats to block the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S.-led International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX), the first of its kind in the Middle East, comes amid heightened tensions between Israel and Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
The exercise began Sunday on the same day that the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard threatened to retaliate against the Strait of Hormuz, Israel and nearby U.S. bases should his country be attacked.
Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Tehran is “90 percent” toward having a nuclear bomb.
U.S. defense officials insist the exercise is not aimed at Iran or any one country, but is simply designed to hone counter-mine capabilities among allies and partners.
“This [exercise] is not being conducted in response to any particular threat or any specific situation,” Lieutenant Greg Raelson of the U.S. Fifth fleet in Bahrain told AFP Monday.
“This exercise uses a scenario based on a violent extremist organization to prepare for the possibility ... [they] may use mines or a seaborne improvised explosive device to disrupt freedom of navigation,” he added.
U.S. Vice Admiral John Miller, head of the U.S. Naval Forces in the wider Gulf region, echoed his comments.
“This exercise is about mines and the international effort to clear them,” he said in a statement.
Analysts, however, argue that the anti-mine maneuvers are designed to counter Iran’s escalating threats to block the strategic straits.
This is “a message to all parties in the region – to the allies and Iran – that the U.S. is ready to defend their common interests, keep the straits and maritime routes open and respond to any attacks against its bases in the region” said Riad Kahwaji, of the Institute for near East and Gulf military analysis in Dubai.
More than 500 ships, 60 percent of which are energy carriers, pass through the Straits every week, a strategic chokepoint that connects the Gulf and some of the world’s top oil producing nations to the rest of the world.
“This is a vital region where sea lanes and resources and international interests all intersect,” said Raelson.
“Defending these interests against a sea mine attack is really a core mission of navy mine warfare ... and this exercise is an effort to decrease the international threat of mining and to enhance our combined capabilities to provide long-term stability and security.”
The anti-mine maneuvers will last through Sept. 27 and involve more than 30 nations including the United States, Britain, Japan, France, Yemen and Jordan.
Raelson confirmed that no maneuvers “at all” would take place in the Strait of Hormuz itself.
He added that a variety of anti-mine techniques would be practiced, including “mine-hunting operations, helicopter mine countermeasures operations, dive operations, small boat exercises and international cross platform refueling training.”
General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Iranian Guard, told a news conference in Tehran Sunday that the strait would be a legitimate target for Iran should it be attacked.
Jafari also suggested that U.S. military bases – the two largest in Bahrain and Qatar – would be fair game for retaliation by Iran or proxy forces.
The U.S. also has several military bases in Kuwait and a military presence in the United Arab Emirates.
And if Israeli jets or missiles struck Iran, “nothing of Israel will be left, considering its size,” warned Jafari.
Netanyahu, speaking on two U.S. political television talk shows, pressed the need for a “red line” on Iran’s atomic activities.
The Israeli prime minister said such measures had averted nuclear calamity with Russia during the Cold War and could be used to ensure peace again.
The U.S. says all options against Iran, including military action, remain on the table, but top officials reject “red lines” as political grandstanding that might leave them disadvantaged.
Western nations believe Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, despite repeated denials from Tehran, which says its program is for peaceful purposes only.