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The Next Mideast War

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Iran’s “Great Prophet” War Games Rattle the Strategic Strait of Hormuz

April 26th 2010

Iran - IRan war games
Iran’s “Great Prophet” naval exercise at the Strait of Hormuz

Iranian military exercises commenced on April 22 in the Strait of Hormuz with more than 300 boats and ships equipped with torpedo and guided-missiles participating. The war games were dubbed “The Great Prophet” by Iran. Contact was made with foreign vessels—making these more than war games.

The Iranian Revoutionary Guard marine patrol searched a French and Italian vessel during the massive naval exercises on April 23rd to determine “whether the two were following environmental regulations during the war games conducted by Iran in the vital Strait of Hormuz,” according to official Iranian sources. The French and Italian ships were allowed to continue their course following the Iranian interdiction. US warships, also present in the Persian Gulf, were not similarly searched or harassed. But the message of Iranian naval power in the Strait of Hormuz was not lost.

In 2008, Iranian patrol vessels approached a U.S. warship the Persian Gulf in a threantening manner but did not engage in hostile action. The Strait of Hormuz connects the Persian Gulf with the larger Indian Ocean and is a strategic chokepoint through which forty percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes.

Some analysts feel these exercises may have been intended to engage not only the United States and the West, but also nearby Arab states as Iran flexes its military muscles. Iran and Iraq engaged in a bloody war during the 1980s. Under Shah Reza Pahlavi, Iran had been criticized for its flamboyant shows of military might—using equipment mostly purchased from the West.

Tensions have been high in the region during Iran’s fifth annual “Great Prophet” military exercise, which demonstrate Iran’s naval capabilities at the world’s most sensitive intersection. An interruption of oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz would cause economic and social convulsions in the oil hungry West, especially the United States, which currently has no effective plan to address such a crisis, according to author Edwin Black. In his book, The Plan, Black discusses the strategic importance of the narrow Strait of Hormuz, and the likely result of an oil interruption for the U.S. should oil be cut off from the world by Iranian naval activity such as laying sea mines or otherwise attacking ship traffic. Black has called the Strait of Hormuz the “solar plexus of the industrized world.”

Iran has stated repeatedly that should its interests be attacked, by the U.S. or its allies, it would respond by shutting down the gulf. “We will not allow America to renew its hellish dominance over Iran,” said Ayatollah Khameini on April 22, 2010.

Missiles fired from speed-boats or from shore batteries, however, would pose as great a risk to commercial vessels such as oil tankers as they would for naval forces.

Iran did not explain why this year’s exercise came in the spring while the previous four such exercises were conducted during the summer months. This year’s Iranian exercise unveiled new super-fast patrol boats that were seen firing missiles and automatic fire. Iranian television showed its signature swarming of speedboats approaching an aged Iranian warship target firing missile after missile with devastating effect. The newly unveiled attack speedboat, described by Iran as an “ultra-speed and smart” vessel, is dubbed the “Ya Mahdi”—named for a Muslim hero and martyr. Iran also said 313 smaller speedboats with the capability of firing rockets and missiles also participated. U.S. analysts have expressed fears in the past that “swarms” of such vessels could pose an effective threat to U.S. and allied naval forces that deploy more heavily-armed but cumbersome vessels. Iranian-controlled television showed video footage of a Ya Mahdi vessel firing rockets, while dozens of smaller speedboats launched rocket-propelled grenades at an abandoned ship, then troops boarded it in a simulated attack on an enemy warship.

On April 21, Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi said “new weapons” would be test-fired in the war games, but did not give details. Observers think the new weapons were sea to sea missiles which Iran claims can sink anything in the Gulf. Iran has declared many advances in its military industries and sciences to demonstrate self-sufficiency despite sanctions and attempts by the U.S. and its allies to isolate the country. It retains warships and weapons sold by the U.S. and the United Kingdom during the heyday of the Shah of Iran, an ally of the West.

The speeding boats were part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard military, which has previously promised if they come under attack, they will hit back by blocking the vital waterway. The three-day exercise has involved the Guard’s ground, air and naval units. Iran’s naval might is not controlled by its regular military, but the more erratic Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was formed by Iran’s original revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to defend the nascent Islamic republic and its radical Muslim clerics from internal and external threats in the late 1970s. Now one of Iran’s most powerful institutions, the 120,000 member force falls under the direct command of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as the nation’s supreme leader. Iran’s regular military was considered too closely tied to the Shah of Iran and has since been relegated to second-place. In the wake of the revolution, numerous Iranian military officers were executed along with other enemies of the new government.

The annual maneuvers are also a testimony to the growing power in Iran of the Revolutionary Guard, which besides having its own naval, air and ground forces, is now involved in every critical area including missile development, oil resources, dam building, road construction, telecommunications and nuclear technology, including taking the lead in cracking down on Iran’s domestic opposition amid the turmoil since last year’s disputed presidential election.

Ahead of the war games, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the U.S. of trying to dominate the world through its nuclear arsenal and vowed that Iran would not bend before what he called “implicit atomic threats.” Speaking this week to a conference of nurses, Khameini said, “Implicit atomic threats against Iran will have no effect,” and added, “The Iranian people will not submit to such threats and will bring those who make them to their knees.” He repeated that Iran is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon. “The nuclear powers, particularly the United States, are using their nuclear might to try to impose their authority over the world,” he declared.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, at conference on nuclear weapons held in Teheran just days after a similar conference held in Washington DC, that the U.S. is the world’s only “atomic criminal.” No stranger to inflammatory rhetoric, Ahmadinejad has said that he intends to wipe Israel off the map. Military osbervers were quick to recall the words of Maj. General Mohsen Rezaei who declared in 1997, “Let me send a clear message to the Americans: the Persian Gulf is our region; they have to leave our region.” He added, “Iran will never start any war, but if Americans one day decide to attack us, then they would have committed suicide. We will turn the region into a slaughterhouse for them. There is no greater place than the Persian Gulf to destroy America’s might.”

Ayatollah Khamenei has castigated President Barack Obama’s announcement earlier this month of a new strategy that would focus less on Cold War threats and more on preventing the spread of weapons. President Obama has vowed not to use its nuclear arsenal against nations that don’t have their own nuclear weapons, with the exception of countries that are not abiding by international non-proliferation rules—a message that Obama thereby telegraphed to Iran and North Korea. The Iranians’ rhetoric, depicting a domineering U.S., appears to be aimed at stirring nationalist sentiments in Iran and to fend off a new U.S. attempt to win a fourth round of United Nations sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program.

Khamenei’s rhetoric, depicting Washington as seeking to dominate Iran, appeared aimed at keeping up support at home as Iran tried to fend off a new U.S. attempt to win a fourth round of United Nations sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration is lobbying hard at the U.N. Security Council for tougher punishment of Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, a process that can produce either a warhead or fuel for a nuclear reactor. The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to build a weapon, a claim Tehran denies despite its assertions of increased self-sufficiency in weaponry.

Tehran commenced a diplomatic push on April 22 to address the U.S. sanctions efforts as Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki headed to Austria, the first of several UN Security Council members he plans to tour. Mottaki has said he wants to talk with council members about possibilities for a nuclear fuel deal that was originally touted as a possible way to ease the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program but has since hit a dead end. As part of that push, President Ahmadinejad visited Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe while the exercises were taking place in the Straits of Hormuz.

In Washington, a Defense Department spokesman sought to diminish the implicit threat from Iran. According to Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, the exercises “don’t seem out of the ordinary” from what Iran’s military has done in the past, while averring that Tehran often makes exaggerated claims about its weapons testing. The U.S. Navy said it expects “no significant impacts” to its operations in the area, where it has a number of ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower.

Iranian rhetoric has become inflamed since the release of “Nuclear Posture Review” that guaranteed non-nuclear nations that they would never be threatened by a United States nuclear strike—as long as they are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as judged by the United States. An Administration spokesman said this week that the nuclear review was deliberately crafted so as to exclude Iran and North Korea from the security guarantees in order to create an incentive for both to become compliant with the treaty. The Administration insists that this was not a veiled nuclear threat against Iran, which is widely believed to be developing nuclear weapons. Some critics of the U.S. say that the review provides a pretext for Iran to move forward on its nuclear weaponization program. Israel has openly declared that if the world does not eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat, it will.

Cutting Edge senior correspondent Martin Barillas edits www.SperoForum.com.

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