Iran begins naval war games in Strait of Hormuz

Iran launched six days of major naval exercises around the Strait of Hormuz yesterday, proclaiming they would demonstrate its "defensive" capabilities and send a "message of peace and friendship to regional countries".

The manoeuvres come just days after the Gulf Cooperation Council wrapped up its annual summit in Bahrain. The GCC said at the end of the summit on Tuesday that it “rejects and denounces” Iran’s “continued interference” in their internal affairs and Tehran must “immediately and completely stop these actions and policies that increase regional tension and threaten security and stability”.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz - through which 40 per cent of the world's tanker-borne oil exports pass - if attacked by the US or Israel.

Washington has warned Iran that any attempt to close the narrow strait at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf would be viewed as a "red line" - grounds for military action by the US, which has formidable military assets in the region.

Iran's navy commander, Habibollah Sayyari, said the "Velayat 91" naval drills will cover nearly one million square kilometres extending to the Gulf of Oman and northern parts of the Indian Ocean.

The exercises will involve warships, submarines, jet fighters and hovercraft while testing the navy's missile systems and electronic warfare capabilities, Iranian officials said.

Iran's military posturing, however, is unlikely to significantly stoke tensions with the US, analysts said.

Both sides are preparing for a new round of high-stakes negotiations in January over Tehran's nuclear programme, which the West suspects is aimed at producing atomic weapons, a charge Iran denies.

The US will engage with Iran under the aegis of the P5+1, a grouping of six world powers comprising the five permanent members of the UN Security Council along with Germany. Washington, moreover, is also hoping for direct talks with Iran, the economy of which is suffering under heavy international sanctions.

"At this point I don't see Washington reacting to them [Iran's war games] in a way that would increase tensions because the American priority is the possibility of Iran making concessions in nuclear talks," Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in England, said. "For their part, the Iranians also want to engage in discussions without making those concessions in advance."

For the same reasons, Iran made little fuss in September when the US and more than two dozen of its allies staged the biggest ever naval exercises in the Middle East. Those war games were a robust if implicit message to Iran that Washington would not tolerate any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz.

About a third of the world's tanker-borne oil passes through the strategic chokepoint that links the Gulf's petroleum-exporting states of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.

Iran held similar war games in December last year when it warned that closing strait would be easier than "drinking a glass of water".

At the time, Tehran threatened to close the waterway if the West imposed sanctions on its oil exports, but failed to act when those measures came into effect six months later.

Domestic politics likely are also playing a part in Tehran's sabre-rattling, with the regime keen to distract attention from in-fighting between Iran's lame-duck but still combative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hardline rivals.

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