DUBAI - The United States and its allies have launched a major naval exercise in the Gulf that they say shows a global will to keep oil shipping lanes open as Israel and Iran trade threats of war.
Publicly announced in July, the operation, known as IMCMEX-12, focuses on clearing mines that Tehran, or guerrilla groups, might deploy to disrupt tanker traffic, notably in the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran and the Arabian peninsula.
The start of the event, with a symposium for officers from more than 30 navies, came as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told US television viewers on Sunday that Tehran was close to being able to build a nuclear bomb; his words fueled talk of an Israeli strike, and of Netanyahu pressuring US President Barack Obama to back Israel as Obama battles for re-election.
Military officials, diplomats and analysts - as well as Iran itself - all sought to play down the significance of the timing and to stress the defensive and hypothetical aspects of the exercise, which moves on to the water from Thursday with ships from a much smaller number of nations taking part in maneuvers.
However, it was a clearly deliberate demonstration of the determination on the part of a broad coalition of states to counter any attempt Iran might make to disrupt Gulf shipping in retaliation for an Israeli or US strike on its nuclear facilities - a form of retaliation Iran repeatedly threatened.
"This exercise is about mines and the international effort to clear them," Vice Admiral John Miller, commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command, told officers assembled for the symposium at his fleet headquarters in Bahrain on Monday.
"Represented here are the best of our individual countries' efforts dedicated to securing the global maritime commons."
As well as Britain and France, the main European naval powers, a number of Middle Eastern states are taking part, along with countries from as far apart as Estonia and New Zealand.
"The demining efforts are clearly in preparation for a showdown with Iran," said Hayat Alvi of the US Naval War College, "Presumably in the context of either an Israeli strike targeting Iran's nuclear facilities, or some provocation that leads to an Iranian response in the Persian Gulf region."
US forces in the Gulf include two aircraft carriers on permanent station, though these will not take part in the latest exercise - one of dozens held by the fleet every year. For its part, Iran has said it will hold a major air defense exercise next month, showing its ability to protect nuclear sites.
Western powers are also involved in planning a major naval exercise to be held in the eastern Mediterranean next month.
Oil prices were little changed on Monday, though tensions have spooked markets before. Iranian threats to block the waterway through which about 17 million barrels a day sailed in 2011 have grown as U.S. and European sanctions aimed at starving Tehran of funds for its nuclear program have tightened.
But Iranian military officials sounded a relaxed note, reassuring their own public: "This exercise is a defensive exercise and we don't perceive any threats from it," Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was quoted as saying on Sunday. "We are not conducting exercises in response."