The [Pakistan] News – 2007-02-22 00:22:12
MANAMA, Pakistan (February 21, 2007) — The outgoing commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet has expressed concern that a “miscalculation” by Iran in its nuclear standoff with the West could spark an armed conflict in the Gulf region.
Vice Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, who also heads the US Naval Forces Central Command, told a small group of journalists at Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain that Iran was more likely to threaten oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz than mine the strategic passageway in the event of a showdown.
“What concerns me is miscalculation. That’s certainly what we are trying to avoid… a mistake that then boils over into a war,” Walsh said late on Monday.
Walsh, whose forces’ main mission is to secure free navigation in the Gulf and in a zone stretching from the northwestern part of the Indian Ocean to Pakistan in the east, was referring specifically to the northern part of the Gulf, where two Iraqi oil platforms are located and “the incursions from Iran have continued to grow over time.”
He made his remarks as a second nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier arrived in regional waters in an apparent warning to Teheran, which Washington accuses of seeking nuclear weapons and fueling the anti-US insurgency in Iraq.
The USS John C. Stennis and its accompanying strike group joined the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Sea of Oman, the first time the US has had two aircraft carrier groups in the region since its 2003 invasion of Iraq, compounding speculation about a possible US strike against the Islamic republic.
“We would expect the duration of the time here for the Stennis to be several months,” but its arrival is “not necessarily a precursor to offensive actions,” said Walsh, stressing it will initially support operations in Afghanistan.
“There is a national and international commitment to try and work through this crisis (over Iran’s nuclear programme) through diplomatic channels,” namely the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Walsh said.
The countries of the region want a solution through such mechanisms “and we are very supportive of that.”
But Walsh, who has been commanding the Fifth Fleet since October 2005 and will leave Bahrain for Washington later this month to become the US Navy’s number two, did not hide his concern about Iran’s belligerent posture [sic].
“They (Iranian leaders) threaten to use oil as a weapon, they threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz, and so, it’s the combination of the rhetoric, the tone and the aggressive exercises here in very constrained waters that gives us concerns,” he said.
“In the past year and a half it (Iran) has become much more strident, more vocal and in your face,” Walsh, 52, said. He recalled that during war games dubbed Great Prophet 2 in November in which Iran fired ballistic missiles in the Gulf, the Iranians “put their mines on their small boats and then displayed that… for all to see.”
The exercises “focused on the Strait of Hormuz,” through which at least 20 per cent of the world’s energy passes. “The only conclusion that we can draw from that is that it is meant to intimidate and provoke those who are in the region,” Walsh said.
The US commander said that while Iran would not be able to close the Strait of Hormuz by using mines, it could “terrorise” the passageway, which would have a “dramatic impact” on world oil markets.
“To block all six miles (used by ships) would be a very difficult mission,” Walsh said.
“They would have to sit there and plant minefields for an extended period of time, and many would be able to see that,” he said.
“I think a more realistic characterisation is that Iran would terrorise the Strait… That would have a dramatic impact on markets around the world.”
Walsh said that the United States and its allies had deployed more minesweepers in response to Iranian threats against the Strait.
“There are more mine-clearing capabilities here in the region than there were a year ago…So when Iran talks about the ability to close the Strait of Hormuz by using mines, we come out with mine-clearing capabilities,” he said.
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