Rick Gladstone – New York Times Dec 22, 2011
Iran put neighbors on notice Thursday that it was about to conduct vast naval exercises in the Arabian Sea, including war games near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping lane for international oil traffic.
The exercises, to start Saturday and last 10 days, are Iran’s first since May 2010 and were described by the official news media as the largest the country ever planned. The scale of the maneuvers appeared intended to demonstrate Iran’s military capabilities as it faces increased isolation over its suspect nuclear energy program.
The exercises are bound to put Iranian warships close to vessels of the United States Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, which patrols some of the same waters, including the Strait of Hormuz.
About one-third of the world’s oil tanker shipments pass through the strait, which the United States Energy Information Administration has called “the world’s most important oil chokepoint.”
Oil prices rose in reaction to the news from Iran as well as violence and political instability in Iraq, which caused worries about possible supply disruptions. At the New York Mercantile Exchange, the benchmark oil contract for February delivery cost $99.53 a barrel at midday, up from $98.67 on Wednesday.
Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, the commander of Iran’s navy, said at a news conference in Tehran that the exercises would cover a large area from the east side of the strait in the Gulf of Oman, south and west through the Arabian Sea to the Gulf of Aden near the Horn of Africa.
Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency quoted Admiral Sayyari as telling reporters that the exercises were intended to show “Iran’s military prowess and defense capabilities in the international waters, convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries, and test the newest military equipment.”
Admiral Sayyari was also quoted as saying that “the newest missile systems and torpedoes will be employed in the maneuvers,” and that “destroyers, missile-launching vessels, logistic vessels, drones and coastal missiles will also be tested.”
Lt. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain, said in an e-mail that the fleet command was aware of the reports from Iran.
“The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet interaction with the regular Iranian Navy continues to be within the standards of maritime practice, routine and professional,” she said.
Iran periodically conducts military drills and missile tests, but the scale and timing of these naval exercises are noteworthy. They come at a time when Iran feels increasingly besieged over its nuclear program, which it insists is purely peaceful.
Last month, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency issued a report raising the possibility that Iran has been working on a nuclear weapon and missile delivery system. The United States, European Union and Israel have said a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, and Israel in particular has hinted at a pre-emptive military strike at suspected nuclear targets in Iran.
The United Nations Security Council has issued four rounds of sanctions to penalize Iran for not halting its nuclear work. The United States, Canada and European Union have imposed their own sanctions on Iran that have targeted a range of industries and the banking system.