A U.S. Navy boat is lowered to the sea from the deck of the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf on Sept. 22. More than 30 nations are participating in an exercise responding to simulated sea-mine attacks in international waters amid rising tension with Iran.
The U.S. military, along with more than 30 allied countries, has just launched a new round of naval exercises in the Persian Gulf at a time when tensions in the region are running particularly high.
But U.S. officials say the aim is not to increase anxiety, but rather to ensure stability. More specifically, the exercises are designed to deal with mines that could hamper shipping in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world's oil supply transits.
Iran has said if it is attacked, it will close the Strait of Hormuz. U.S. Cmdr. Jason Salata, spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, says the Navy's confidence is high that it can deal with any threat to navigation.
A U.S. Navy speedboat passes in front of multinational military ships in the Persian Gulf on Sept. 21 as part of the military exercise. If attacked, Iran says it will close the Strait of Hormuz, which is a crucial shipping route.
A U.S. Navy speedboat passes in front of multinational military ships in the Persian Gulf on Sept. 21 as part of the military exercise. If attacked, Iran says it will close the Strait of Hormuz, which is a crucial shipping route. Hasan Jamali/AP
"I wouldn't put a timeline to it, but I think that this exercise demonstrates that," Salata says. "I mean, there's more than 30 countries here, and I think that signals a strong resolve from the international community to go after the threat."
The Navy won't name a specific threat, but everyone here knows it's a message for Iran.
Bahraini official Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al Khalifa says all of Iran's neighbors have a keen interest in what happens to that country's nuclear facilities, such as the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant just across the gulf from Bahrain.
"That nuclear plant is closer to Bahrain than it is to Tehran," Khalifa says. "I think what these minesweeping exercises say to Iran is that the whole world is here to make sure that the waters of the Gulf will remain open and safe."
The scenario riveting the attention of people in the region at the moment involves an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear installations.
Michael Elleman, a Bahrain-based analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says if Israel does strike, without U.S. involvement and without leaving a huge death toll, Iran may well offer a limited retaliation.
Elleman says Iran is well aware that drawing the Americans into a conflict — by laying mines in the Gulf, for instance — could have rapidly escalating consequences.
"Once they start, if the Americans have to clear mines, they may feel compelled to clear the anti-shipping missiles that are arrayed along the shores of the Strait of Hormuz," Elleman says. "If they do that, do they have to take out the air defense forces? So Iran, by taking one small step, risks multiple steps in response."
Analysts say the balance of power in any fight is clear.
Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, says the U.S. and its allies would certainly overwhelm the Iranians. But that's not to say Iran could not inflict damage with an asymmetric warfare strategy.
"They have deployed a lot of fast crafts, equipped with either torpedoes or surface-to-surface missiles, or to be used in suicide attacks," Kahwaji says. "They have a number of Russian-built submarines and indigenous-built midget submarines ... these are the ones that pose the most serious threat."
An Unpredictable Region
Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, says logic and realism suggest that an attack on Iran is not imminent. But in the Middle East, he adds, logic and realism do not always prevail. That's why, he says, Gulf states watched so closely as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to insert himself into the American presidential campaign.
"I think the Israelis try to pressurize the American administration," Alani says, "either to embarrass the administration, showing that they are not doing enough to stop the Iranians, or they are trying to basically secure a commitment from [the] Obama administration, that after the election the Americans could give a green light."
Israel's heightened rhetoric, meanwhile, has been more than matched by Iran's.
Over the weekend, an Iranian Republican Guard officer said Israel, which he described as a "shameful and cancerous tumor," is seeking war, but it's not clear when.
Analysts say such messages might be intended for hard-liners at home, but as tensions in the region increase, even rhetoric meant for domestic political consumption can have unintended and deadly consequences.