US naval command has begun what it's calling the "most widely attended" military exercise in the Gulf region on mine-laying and clearance from its base in Bahrain. Taking part are 12 vessels and experts from 30 nations.
The exercise comes at a moment of rising regional tensions over Iran's nuclear intentions, the resulting Israeli alarm and protests across the Middle East over a California-made anti-Islam video.
US Vice Admiral John W. Miller did not name the nations participating in the exercise code-named IMCMEX on Monday, but said their task was to secure "the global maritime commons."
"This exercise is about mines and the international effort to clear them," Miller said on the website of US Central Command.
Miller added that visiting experts would first attend a symposium and then conduct a "defensive" exercise in "three separate geographical areas," including mine-hunting and detection of improvised explosive devices under water.
Hormuz lies at the narrow entrance to the Gulf
Forty percent of the world's seaborne oil exports pass through the adjacent Strait of Hormuz. Iranian politicians and officials have often said Iran could block it in response to sanctions or military action. Last week, Iran, which recently conducted its own exercises in the Hormuz area, had said it would closely monitor the US-led exercise.
Netanyahu sounds alarm
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Iran was just six to seven months away from being able to build a nuclear bomb and thereby increased pressure on US President Barack Obama to back a military intervention.
Iran has claimed in the past that its program is for peaceful purposes, such as electricity generation.
Speaking from Jerusalem via satellite link to NBC's "Meet the Press" program in the United States, Netanyahu said Iran had entered the "red zone" and by mid-2013 would have 90 percent of the material needed to build a bomb.
"You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?" Netanyahu asked.
On Sunday, the commander of Iran's revolutionary guards, Mohammad-Ali Jafari had told reporters in Tehran that should Israel attack Iran "no part of Israel would be safe and nothing of that country would remain."
He also warned the US that in case of a military confrontation, Iran would attack US military bases close the Strait of Hormuz.
Ambasssador Rice urges caution
US officials cautious
During the NBC broadcast, Obama's envoy at the United Nations, Susan Rice, said Iran was not yet close to becoming a nuclear power.
"They're not there yet", she said.
"We will take no option off the table to ensure that [Iran] does not acquire a nuclear weapon, including a military option," Rice said.
Last week, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rejected Netanyahu's notion of "red lines."
"Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner," Panetta said.
Obama, who is seeking re-election, was recently accused by his Republican rival Mitt Romney of being too cautious on Israel's wish to intervene and not tough enough with Iran.
ipj/ch (Reuters; AFP, dpa)