Battleships, aircraft carriers, minesweepers and submarines from 25 nations are converging on the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in an unprecedented show of force as Israel and Iran move towards the brink of war.
Western leaders are convinced that Iran will retaliate to any attack by attempting to mine or blockade the shipping lane through which passes around 18 million barrels of oil every day, approximately 35 per cent of the world’s petroleum traded by sea.
In preparation for any pre-emptive or retaliatory action by Iran, warships from more than 25 countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will today begin an annual 12-day exercise.
In addition, commanders will also simulate destroying Iranian combat jets, ships and coastal missile batteries.
Defence sources say that although Iran’s capability may not be technologically sophisticated, it could deliver a series of lethal blows against British and US ships using mini-subs, fast attack boats, mines and shore-based anti-ship missile batteries.
Next month, Iran will stage massive military manoeuvres of its own, to show that it is prepared to defend its nuclear installations against the threat of aerial bombardment.
The exercise is being showcased as the biggest air defence war game in the Islamic Republic’s history, and will be its most visible response yet to the prospect of an Israeli military strike.
Using surface-to-air missiles, unmanned drones and state-of-the-art radar, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and air force will combine to test the defences of 3,600 sensitive locations throughout the country, including oil refineries and uranium enrichment facilities.
Brigadier General Farzad Esmaili, commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya air defence base, told a conference this month that the manoeuvres would “identify vulnerabilities, try out new tactics and practise old ones”.
At the same time as the Western manoeuvres in the Gulf, the British Response Task Forces Group — which includes the carrier HMS Illustrious, equipped with Apache attack helicopters, along with the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle - will be conducting a naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean. The task force could easily be diverted to the Gulf region via the Suez Canal within a week of being ordered to do so.
The main naval exercise comes as President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, today to discuss the Iranian crisis.
Many within the Obama administration believe that Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities before the US presidential elections, an act which would signal the failure of one of Washington’s key foreign policy objectives.
The crisis hinges on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, which Israel believes is designed to build an atomic weapon. Tehran has long argued that the programme is for civil use only and says it has no plans to an build a nuclear bomb, but that claim has been disputed by the West, with even the head of MI6 stating that the Islamic Republic is on course to develop atomic weapons by 2014.