12.05.2013 Author: Stanislav Ivanov

A Major New US Provocation in the Persian Gulf

778The navies of 41 countries will be conducting a large-scale exercise under US auspices in the Persian Gulf from May 6 to May 30. The Pentagon says the participants will exercise a “wide spectrum of defensive operations” designed to protect maritime shipping, international commerce and trade and coastal infrastructure (oil terminals); perform mine countermeasures on the surface and from the air; convoy civilian vessels; and carry out assault landings.

These exercises involve 35 combat and auxiliary warships, 18 unmanned underwater vehicles and more than 100 explosive ordnance disposal divers. For mine countermeasures, Washington has sent three aircraft carriers accompanied by missile cruisers, frigates, destroyers, minesweepers and assault landing ships with more than 1000 Marines on board.

The United States and its allies conducted a similar exercise in the Persian Gulf just a few months ago, in September 2012, hypocritically claiming that it was not directed against Iran or any other country. Several members of the Western press believe that the exercise by the United States and its allies can be considered the final stage of preparations for an Israeli and US military operation against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The United States’ most loyal allies — the British — also do not believe the exercise is peaceful. Literally the day prior, the Sunday Telegraph reported that sources were saying the participants in the upcoming mine countermeasures exercise are actually awaiting a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Not coincidentally, Israeli experts and politicians are increasingly talking about dates when Iran is forecast to cross a “red line” by acquiring nuclear weapons. Realizing that the UN Security Council will never support a US-Israeli military operation against Iran, Washington has apparently decided to forge ahead and assemble a broader international anti-Iranian coalition.

The concentration of a Western naval armada in the Persian Gulf can also be viewed as an attempt to put pressure on Iranian voters in advance of the presidential election coming up this summer in Iran. However, Tehran is not panicked by the military preparations of the changes the United States and its allies. Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), said his subordinates stand ready to repel any potential threat from outside the country: “The IRGC is equipped with the most modern weapons and means for Iran’s defense.” He says Tehran intends to respond to a possible attack by all possible means: “The consequences are clear: The United States is very vulnerable — its military bases are within range of Iranian missiles.”

This latest “demonstration of force” and “saber rattling” by the United States and its allies come at a time when the overall situation in the Middle East is growing worse. The civil war in Syria already reaches beyond a single country, and several foreign states are involved in it to some extent (Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime; Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Sunni groups in Lebanon and Iraq — on the side of the armed opposition). Israel recently struck several Syrian facilities with missiles and bombs; the United States and EU countries are actively discussing increasing aid to the free Syrian army (FSA) opposing Damascus and the use of chemical weapons by the warring parties. It appears that Washington and its allies are seeking a pretext and setting the stage for intervening more actively in Syria’s internal affairs.

The situation has also grown worse in neighboring Iraq, where clashes between FSA fighters and soldiers of the Syrian and Iraqi armies have taken place, with both sides taking casualties. The conflict between Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq and the country’s Sunni Arab minority is increasing. The conflict has already passed the stage of mass rallies and protest demonstrations and reached the point of open armed confrontation in which the Sunnis have taken control of towns and regions. The country has once again been swept by a wave of violence and large-scale terrorist attacks that are largely initiated and nurtured from outside (particularly by Riyadh and Doha).

Against that backdrop, Washington is drawing the Gulf monarchies and Iraq into an unprecedented arms race. Plans call for selling Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman state-of-the-art US and NATO weapons for an amount totaling more than $100 billion. A new military-political bloc based on the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (the GCC) is being put together, and it is already unofficially being called a “mini-NATO.” Proposals call for the bloc to be based on a joint missile defense system that will interact closely with US and NATO naval air and missile defenses in the Persian Gulf. The creators of this new bloc make no bones about the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran is its most probable enemy.

In late April 2013, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel paid a working visit on Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It was announced during his visit that the United States would give its allies in the region a total of $10 billion in urgent military assistance. Hagel’s main focus, of course, was on his talks in Tel Aviv. Washington said it is prepared to give Israel new anti-radar missiles, radars for advanced fighters, KC-135 refueling aircraft, V-22 Osprey tiltrotor transport aircraft and other military hardware worth more than $3 billion in the near future. The Pentagon chief stressed that the agreement for new arms deliveries to Israel “was a clear signal” to Iran. Analysts believe that the signing of the new US-Israeli military contract is reflective of the alliance between the United States and Israel and, at the same time, a way of putting more pressure on Iran.

In Cairo, Hagel discussed prospects for increasing and optimizing US military assistance to Egypt with his counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In particular, the US side proposed including Egyptian military personnel in the Pentagon’s international military education and training programs. The main focus at the US-Jordanian talks in Amman was on Syria and the possibility of expanding the US military presence in Jordan.

Although Iraq continues to teeter on the brink of collapse and members of the Arab Shiite majority led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are in power, Washington is accelerating deliveries of $30 billion worth of new arms to that country. Iraq apparently still has a leading role in the US plans to create a “Greater Middle East” (either unified or split into enclaves: Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish). Iraq is the only Persian Gulf country that has a land border with Iran, therefore it is considered Washington’s outpost on that axis. Certainly, Washington is also taking into account Iraq’s globally significant oil and gas reserves.

While continuing to lead the militarization of the Middle East, Washington is also involving its NATO allies (Germany, Britain, France, Turkey, etc.) in its military and military-technical cooperation with countries in the region. For example, Qatar’s military leaders are considering acquiring new Leopard 2 tanks from Germany; Saudi Arabia has already done so. Riyadh intends to buy $2 billion worth of arms from Turkey. Saudi Arabia has expressed a particular interest in purchasing the MALE class Anka reconnaissance UAV from Turkey, as well as its Altai main battle tank, which is still undergoing development and testing.

Thus, the further militarization of the Middle East and the large-scale exercises of the United States, NATO and their regional allies in the Persian Gulf are significantly increasing the danger of new armed conflicts and provocations in this strategically important and volatile region.

Stanislav Ivanov, Cand. Sc. (History), is an expert on the Middle East. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.

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