U.S. ADMIRAL SAYS FORCES PREPARED TO CONFRONT IRAN
By Adam Schreck
February 12, 2012
The top U.S. Navy official in the Gulf said Sunday he takes Iran’s military capabilities seriously but insists his forces are prepared to confront any Iranian aggression in the region.
Vice Adm. Mark Fox, commander of the 5th Fleet, told reporters at the naval force’s Bahrain headquarters that the Navy has “built a wide range of potential options to give the president" and is “ready today" to confront any hostile action by Tehran.
He did not outline specifically how the Navy might answer an Iranian strike or an effort to shut the entrance to the Persian Gulf, though any response would likely involve the two U.S. aircraft carriers and other warships cruising the waters off Iran.
“We’ve developed very precise and lethal weapons that are very effective, and we’re prepared," Fox said. “We’re just ready for any contingency."
Faced with tightening Western sanctions, Iranian officials have stepped up threats to close the Strait of Hormuz if the country’s oil exports are blocked. A fifth of the world’s oil supply passes through the narrow waterway, which is only about 30 miles (50 kilometers) across at its narrowest point.
Iran and Oman share control of the waterway, but it is considered an international strait, meaning free transit passage is guaranteed under international law.
Iran’s army chief, Gen. Ataollah Salehi, early last month warned an American warship not to return to the Gulf shortly after the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and another vessel left. Another carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, entered the Gulf without incident on Jan. 22.
Fox acknowledged that Iran’s military is “capable of striking a blow" against American forces in the Gulf, particularly using unconventional means such as small attack boats or mines laid along shipping lanes.
“We’re not bulletproof. There are people that can take a swipe at us," Fox said.
But he added that he has reminded officers under his command that they “have a right and an obligation of self defense" if attacked.
The admiral’s comments echo those of other Western officials, who say they will respond swiftly to any Iranian attempt to shut the Strait of Hormuz.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CBS’ “Face the Nation’’ last month that Iranian forces could block shipping through the strait “for a period of time," but added, “We can defeat that."
In his briefing in the Bahraini capital Manama, Fox voiced support for the tiny island nation that has hosted U.S. Navy vessels for decades.
“They are a long-term partner and a very important piece of our ability to do our mission," he said of the country.
Bahrain has been rocked by protests led by the country’s majority Shiites against the country’s Sunni monarchy that erupted in force a year ago. Street battles between security forces and protesters still flare up almost daily in the predominantly Shiite villages around the capital.
Fox’s command encompasses the bulk of the Middle East, including the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and a large swath of the Indian Ocean along the east African coast. There are about 25,000 sailors under his command.
U.S. NAVY KEEPING ITS OPTIONS OPEN
By Allan Jacob
Khaleej Times (Dubai)
February 13, 2012
MANAMA -- With Iran’s economy reeling from Western sanctions over its disputed nuclear program and the regime threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, the U.S. Navy is not taking any chances as regional tensions run high.
The Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet knows it’s no empty threat and has increased its vigilance in the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
“The Iranians are capable of striking a blow, but we are prepared," said Vice Admiral Mark I. Fox, Commander of US Naval Central Command, 5th Fleet and the Combined Maritime Forces based in Bahrain.
Iran is making efforts to perfect what is known as ‘asymmetric warfare,’ which involves mobile coastal missile batteries, modern anti-ship missiles mounted on fast-attack craft, midget submarines, modern naval mines. It is also believed to have drone aerial vehicles, and can hide and use its artillery in the numerous coves, inlets, and islands along its 2,400 km of Gulf coastline.
The Iranians have three Kilo-class submarines and an estimated 10 of the smaller Yono version. Some of their smaller attack boats could be used for suicide attacks if there is a conflict, said the navy official. These are, however, no match for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet which has 25,000 troops in the region, with 15,000 at sea and 10,000 on shore.
Operating forces are rotationally deployed to the region from either the Pacific Fleet or the Atlantic Fleet. It consists of an Aircraft Carrier Battle Group, an Amphibious Ready Group, surface combatants, submarines, maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, and logistics ships. “But they (the Iranians) can make life difficult for us and the geography suits them," said Vice Admiral Fox.
He said the two naval forces interact on a daily basis to ensure there are no misunderstandings in communication. “It’s been a professional relationship a vast majority of the time."
Iran’s last attempt at a ship blockade near Hormuz was in 1988 when guided missile frigate, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, struck a mine and nearly sank. The act prompted then U.S. president Ronald Reagan to order a retaliatory attack. Mines are still a concern and the 5th Fleet commander said any Iranian plan to rig the strategic area where 31,000 ships transit yearly would be considered an act of war. Four mine-sweeping ships are permanently in the region, said Vice Admiral Fox.
Last year, 16 million barrels of oil were transported daily through the 280km long Strait, which is 20 per cent of the oil traded worldwide.
On Tehran’s nuclear program, the Vice Admiral said it is serious and a long-term concern for the U.S. and its Gulf allies in the region.
A diplomatic solution is in everyone’s interests, he said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this week said Tehran would make a nuclear announcement soon and Israel is not ruling out a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Iran insists its program is for civilian purposes, while the West and Israel believe the regime has designs on a bomb.
Tehran has warned it will strike at U.S. interests and its allies in the region if Israel launches a unilateral strike, which some reports indicate could be in June.
'SMART CONTROL' OF HORMUZ STRAIT IS IRAN'S STRATEGY TOWARD THREATS: IRGC CHIEF
February 13, 2012
TEHRAN -- The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander says that Iran has adopted the strategy of “smart control of the Strait of Hormuz” in the face of oil sanctions and threats.
“Our strategy toward threats and sanctions is smart control of the Strait of Hormuz” Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari told the Persian service of the Fars News Agency on Monday.
“With regard to threats, we have entered a new phase, and now these are our threats that affect the enemy,” he said.
The enemy’s threats have not affected Iran, instead “the Islamic Republic’s threats with regard to controlling and sealing off the Strait of Hormuz or (Iran’s) response to various threats have been more (effective),” Jafari added.
Jafari also said, “People’s presence on revolutionary scenes and their full support of the Islamic Republic system’s goals have made the enemy’s threats against Iran ineffective.”
Iranian officials have said that the Islamic Republic has no decision to block the Strait of Hormuz unless Iran is threatened seriously.
For example, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., Mohammad Khazaii, said on the U.S. television network PBS’ Charlie Rose show on January 19 that “there is no decision to block and close the Strait of Hormuz unless Iran is threatened seriously and somebody wants to tighten the noose.”
He also said, “All the options are or would be on the table.”
During the recent war games staged in the Persian Gulf, Iranian naval forces practiced their ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most strategically important chokepoints, which accounts for about 30% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments.
AS TENSIONS WITH IRAN RISE, U.S. COAST GUARD MAKES WAVES IN PERSIAN GULF
By Mike Levine
February 13, 2012
The U.S. Navy is ready to confront any act of aggression, a top U.S. military official said Sunday after Iran began amassing a fleet of small boats that could launch suicide attacks in the Persian Gulf. But the Navy isn't the only sea-faring U.S. forces on guard in the Gulf.
The U.S. Coast Guard regularly patrols the waters near Iran and Iraq's coasts, but recent widely publicized operations by the Guard in the Gulf surprised many Americans despite its being in the region for nearly a decade.
"When most people think of the branches of the military, they think of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps," said Lt. Joseph "Grant" Thomas, who commanded a U.S. Coast Guard ship, the cutter "Monomoy," in the Persian Gulf from 2009 to 2010.
The Monomoy rescued six Iranian fishermen from their sinking boat on Jan. 10.
"I don't think a lot of people necessarily understand the unique nature of the Coast Guard and how we are both a military and a federal law enforcement agency," Thomas said in an interview with Fox News.
Last month, U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp acknowledged the frequent head-scratching over the Guard's role in the region.
"(I get) a lot of questions: Why is the U.S. Coast Guard there?" Papp said at a Navy symposium Jan. 12.
Six 110-foot Coast Guard cutters like the Monomoy have been deployed in the Middle East since 2003. Papp told Fox News in an interview that the Department of Defense "put in a request" for Coast Guard forces in 2003 when the U.S. Navy and other military branches "did not have sufficient patrol boats" for some efforts in the Middle East.
Thanks to their relatively small size, Coast Guard vessels can access waters that Navy vessels can't, Thomas said.
While in the Middle East, the Coast Guard operates under traditional military authorities and customary international law, which allows military personnel to visit, board and search vessels to confirm their identity, according to Papp.
The Coast Guard's primary mission was to protect the lifeblood of Iraq's fledgling economy: two Iraqi oil platforms, one of which is in waters claimed by Iran. Iraq produces millions of barrels of oil each day. But the U.S. Coast Guard has "backed away" a bit from protecting the Iraqi oil platforms, Papp said, as Coast Guard members train their Iraqi counterparts to take over.
Nevertheless, Papp said it's "fortunate" his forces "had a presence out there" when the six Iranian fishermen needed help, noting that a small Coast Guard vessel can saves lives just like a large Navy battleship. Five days before the Monomoy rescue, sailors from the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group saved 13 other Iranians from a pirate attack.
"The Stennis battle group saved 13, a 110-foot patrol boat saved six," Papp said. "We might not be as big as the Stennis battle group, but we have a pretty good punch there."
In addition to protecting Iraq's oil platforms, the Coast Guard's mission includes escorting large Navy ships in the Persian Gulf to keep small boats away, boarding and investigating foreign ships based on intelligence or suspicious activity and routinely conducting "interaction patrols" to build bridges with local fishermen.
Most fishermen in the Persian Gulf welcomed the U.S. presence, feeling "a sense of security with having us within the region," said Thomas, who is now commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter "Block Island" based out of Atlantic Beach, N.C.
During one "interaction patrol," the fishermen "were very excited and eager to see (us), and (we) ended up staying aboard for a while," Thomas recalled.
Thomas said saving lives on the water is "extremely rewarding," particularly when the Coast Guard can help mariners from a country that has "tense relations" with the United States.
But that doesn't mean the sea-going mission isn't dangerous.
"For the most part, I don't think it'd be any different than a soldier being on the ground over in Iraq or Afghanistan," Thomas said. "You just know that you're in a theater of operations."
In 2004, a Coast Guard member and two Navy sailors were killed when an explosives-laden boat targeted their ship protecting an Iraqi oil terminal. The loss of Petty Officer Nathan Bruckenthal was the Coast Guard's first combat death since the Vietnam War.
"That was constantly in the back of our minds as a potential risk as we were conducting (our) mission," Thomas said.
While Thomas was in the Persian Gulf, he said there were a couple of "tense moments" after threats to Iraq's oil platforms. Thomas said he "set battle stations" aboard his ship, but "fortunately those were short-lived and few and far between."
On Sunday, Navy Vice Admiral Mark Fox told reporters that Iran has increased the number of submarines to 10 and added "fast attack craft" in the Gulf. The deployment follows threats by Iran in recent weeks to disrupt shipping or strike U.S. forces in retaliation if its oil trade is shut down by sanctions or its nuclear program comes under attack.
"Some of the small boats have been outfitted with a large warhead that could be used as a suicide explosive device. The Iranians have a large mine inventory," Fox said.
While the U.S. naval forces are overwhelmingly superior, Iran still could make it "extremely difficult" for the U.S. Navy, he added.
"If we did nothing and they were able to operate without being inhibited, yeah they could close it, but I can't see that we would ever be in that position," Fox said.
But should tensions with Iran escalate on the high seas, Papp said his forces will likely stay out of it.
"In reality we fill a niche over there," he said. "Our cutters are lightly armed. They can protect themselves to a certain extent, but if something large was to happen over there, the U.S. Navy is quite prepared to take care of it."
IRAN PREPARING 'SUICIDE BOATS' IN CASE OF STRAIT OF HORMUZ CONFLICT, U.S. OFFICIAL SAYS
** U.S. Navy commander Mark Fox says Iranian forces could block strategic waterway if uninhibited, stressing the importance of diplomatic efforts to resolve Tehran's standoff with the West. **
February 13, 2012
Iran has built up its naval forces in the Gulf and prepared boats that could be used in suicide attacks, but the U.S. Navy can prevent it from blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the region said on Sunday.
Iran has made a series of threats in recent weeks to disrupt shipping in the Gulf or strike U.S. forces in retaliation if its oil trade is shut down by sanctions, or if its disputed nuclear program comes under attack.
"They have increased the number of submarines . . . they increased the number of fast attack craft," Vice Admiral Mark Fox told reporters. "Some of the small boats have been outfitted with a large warhead that could be used as a suicide explosive device. The Iranians have a large mine inventory."
"We have watched with interest their development of long-range rockets and short, medium, and long range ballistic missiles and of course . . . the development of their nuclear program," Fox, who heads the U.S. Fifth Fleet, said at a briefing on the fleet's base in the Gulf state of Bahrain.
Iran now has 10 small submarines, he said.
Military experts say the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet patrolling the Gulf -- which always has at least one giant supercarrier accompanied by scores of jets and a fleet of frigates and destroyers -- is overwhelmingly more powerful than Iran's navy.
But ever since al Qaeda suicide bombers in a small boat killed 17 sailors on board the destroyer USS Cole in a port in Yemen in 1996, Washington has been wary of the vulnerability of its huge battleships to bomb attacks by small enemy craft.
Asked whether the U.S. Navy was prepared for an attack or other trouble in the Gulf, Fox said: "We are very vigilant, we have built a wide range of options to give the president and we are ready . . . What if it happened tonight? We are ready today."
Iranian officials have threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, the outlet to the Gulf through which nearly all of the Middle East's oil sails.
Asked if he took Iran's threats seriously, Fox said: "Could they make life extremely difficult for us? Yes, they could. If we did nothing and they were able to operate without being inhibited, yeah, they could close it, but I can't see that we would ever be in that position."
He added that diplomacy should be given priority in resolving the tension.
"So when you hear discussion about all this overheated rhetoric from Iran we really believe that the best way to handle this is with diplomacy . . . I am absolutely convinced that is the way to go. It is our job to be prepared. We are vigilant."
Contacts between the U.S. Navy and Iranian craft in the Gulf region were routine, Fox said, referring to cases where his sailors helped Iranian ships that were in distress or threatened by pirates.
In addition to commanding the Fifth Fleet, Fox is also the commander of a multinational naval task force charged with ensuring Gulf shipping routes stay open. Although most of its firepower is American, the task force also includes other Western countries and the Gulf Arab states.
The European Union slapped an embargo on Iranian oil last month, which is due to kick in completely by July 1. The United States and E.U. have both imposed new sanctions on Iran's central bank which make it difficult for countries to pay Tehran for oil and for Iran to pay for the goods it imports.
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