Iran criticizes U.S.-led nuke exercise
By JIM KRANE, Associated Press Writer
DOHA, Qatar - A naval training exercise led by the U.S. and aimed at blocking smuggling of nuclear weapons began Sunday in the Persian Gulf, the first of its kind since North Korea's atomic bomb test and the renewed U.S. drive for sanctions against Iran's nuclear program.
Iran called the two-day maneuvers "adventurist," but the Foreign Ministry said the Islamic Republic's response would be "rational and wise."
"We are watching their movements very carefully," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran, adding that the exercises would not improve security in the gulf, through which about 20 percent of the world's oil transits.
The maneuvers were taking place under the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which is designed to counter trafficking in weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems and related materials, the U.S. Navy said.
Two previous exercises have taken place in this region under the 75-nation initiative, among two dozen held around the world since such maneuvers began in 2003.
It is the first such drill since North Korea exploded a nuclear device Oct. 9. Observers believe the PSI program could be used to halt North Korean weapons traffic in accordance with U.N. sanctions.
South Korea, which has balked at joining the initiative, sent an observer delegation to the gulf but declined to participate.
"We have not (fully) participated in the PSI because there is a high possibility of armed clashes if the PSI is carried out in waters around the Korean peninsula," South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told parliament Friday.
The exercise comes as the United States seeks support for U.N. sanctions against Iran. On Friday, Iran stepped up its uranium enrichment in defiance of a Security Council demand that for a suspension in such work until Tehran eases suspicions it is trying to develop atomic weapons.
Iran insists its program has peaceful aims, saying it is intended only to produce fuel for nuclear reactors that will be used to generate electricity. The Iranians contend Washington seeks to punish them for opposing U.S. policies.
A U.S. Coast Guard cutter is the only American ship among the nine vessels in the "Leading Edge" exercise. The ships are being commanded at sea from an Italian frigate, said Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Brown, spokesman for the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet.
The exercise was set in the crowded international waters off Bahrain, an island kingdom and U.S. ally that lies across the Persian Gulf about 120 miles from Iranian territorial waters.
Brown said the exercise was not openly aimed at any country and would not affect Iranian vessels or ships heading to Iran.
Two U.S.-led multinational task forces already intercept and search suspicious ships in the gulf and nearby waters but focus on shipments headed to Iraq, not Iran.
But a U.S. State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the topic, said PSI members can halt and board Iran-bound ships if they are suspected of carrying banned shipments.
Washington has sought deeper cooperation from its Arab allies in halting nuclear-related shipments to Iran, but many governments are loath to be seen publicly backing the Americans.
Sunday's training scenario focused on surveillance, with teams in 16 countries tracking a ship suspected of carrying outlawed weapons components, Brown said. A tanker from Britain's Royal Navy played the role of the suspicious vessel.
On Monday, sailors on eight other ships are expected to stop, board and search the suspect ship, Brown said.
Countries taking part are Italy, France, Australia, United States and Britain, with one ship each, and Bahrain with three vessels.
Bahrain's participation marks the first time an Arab nation has joined an exercise under the three-year-old PSI.
Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, three Arab countries on the gulf, offered a measure of support as observers. Saudi Arabia, the largest of the gulf countries, has not joined them.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
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