The Telegraph | 13/05/13 | Last Updated: 13/05/13 3:25 PM ET
A fleet of 34 ships will begin the world’s biggest anti-mine exercise Monday in an international show of force after Iranian threats to close the Gulf.
A coalition of 41 nations will practise detecting and clearing mines in the British-led exercise to ensure that they can keep open one of the world’s most important shipping lanes.
The move follows Iran’s warnings in recent years that it might block the Strait of Hormuz if it were to come under attack from America or Israel for its nuclear programme, or in retaliation for international sanctions against the country. Such action would send the oil price soaring and deal a significant blow to the already weakened world economy.
Tehran has already said it will “fully monitor” this week’s exercise and warned participants against “provocations”. It held its own minesweeping exercise east of the strait last week and said it had unveiled a “modern anti-mine” system.
Commodore Simon Ancona, the Royal Navy officer leading the exercise, said it was purely defensive and was not aimed directly at Iran or any other nation.
He said: “There’s no way anyone can claim that they are provocative. They will all take place in international waters. There’s nothing overtly provocative and there’s nothing covert.” He added that the exercise had been put on because of growing international recognition that keeping sea lanes free of mines and protecting shipping was critical to the world economy.
Six British ships are among those taking part. Overall, the mine hunting and disposal drills will use more than 100 divers and 18 underwater remote controlled drone craft to detect and destroy mines. The Royal Navy prides itself on having some of the best anti-mine expertise and equipment in the world.
Ships will also carry out exercises to protect oil installations and escort convoys of merchant ships through the strait, that carries 30 per cent of seaborne oil supplies, Cdre Ancona said, amounting to 15 to 17 million barrels a day.
He said: “There’s no doubt in my mind that a shift in oil prices is a global event and should oil prices increase, then we would all feel that cold breeze.”
The 40-kilometre wide Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf is by far the most important oil “chokepoint” in the world. The threat to close it remains Iran’s most potent strategic weapon.
Malcolm Graham-Wood, an oil analyst with VSA Capital in London, predicted that if Iran ever closed the strait with mines international oil prices could double overnight. A growing number of pipelines in the
Gulf have yet to diminish the oil trade’s reliance on the waterway.
However, he said they would probably quickly fall back as America and its allies moved to clear the channel.
Commanders said British and US naval vessels came into regular contact with their Iranian counterparts in the Gulf’s confined waters and relations were civil.
Vice Admiral John Miller, commander of the US Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, said: “I think we have a fairly good idea of what their maritime capability is. We are out in the Gulf each and every day and the Iranian navy is out in the water every day and we have a good opportunity to assess each other.”
The Daily Telegraph