Ships packed with 17,000 sailors and Marines moved into the Persian Gulf on Wednesday as the US Navy staged another show of force off Iran's coast just days before US-Iran talks in Baghdad and amid new revelations over Iran's nuclear program.
The carrier strike groups, led by the Bremerton-based USS John C. Stennis and USS Nimitz joined by the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard and its own strike group, were to conduct air training while the ships ran submarine, mine and other exercises.
The war games - which culminate in an amphibious landing exercise in Kuwait, just a few miles from Iran - appear to be a clear provocation for Iran, coming just ahead of the Baghdad talks.
US and Iranian ambassadors are to meet Monday in Baghdad to discuss Iraq's security issues. Iran has objected and dismissed US claims that Iran is supplying Iraqi Shiite militias with roadside bombs that kill American troops.
MANAMA, May 24 (Reuters) - The U.S. navy began war games on Iran's doorstep on Thursday, navy officials said, a day after a large flotilla of U.S. ships entered the Gulf in a dramatic daytime show of military muscle.
The group includes two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, whose presence adds to the pressure on the Islamic Republic to abandon its own nuclear ambitions, which the West says are an attempt to develop atomic weapons.
Iran, already under U.N. sanctions for enriching uranium, says its plans are for energy purposes only.
Asked if any of the American ships carried atomic weapons, a U.S. navy spokesman said the United States routinely did not comment on whether its warships were equipped with nuclear arms. On the same day the U.S. ships entered the Gulf, skirting Iran's coast as they passed the Gulf's narrowest point, the U.N.'s atomic agency released a report saying Iran was continuing to defy world demands to stop enriching uranium. The agency's report opens the way for tougher sanctions.
"The Stennis is conducting flight operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nimitz is conducting an air defence exercise. Bonhomme Richard is conducting replenishment at sea," navy Media Operations Officer Denise Garcia told Reuters.
The USS John C. Stennis, USS Nimitz, and the USS Bonhomme Richard are part of the group of nine ships that entered the Gulf on Wednesday, sending oil prices higher as jittery markets eyed possible tensions in the oil shipping hub.
OIL PRICES RISE
Oil prices have continued to rise, hitting a nine-month high above $71 on Thursday.
The ships, carrying about 17,000 personnel and 140 aircraft will take part in war drills over the next two weeks, the group's leader Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn said on Wednesday, adding that the drills would include exercises to defend against air, surface and submarine threats. Their aim is to reassure allies of the U.S. commitment to regional stability, he said.
Iran has blamed foreign forces for causing regional instability, and on Wednesday said it would give a "powerful answer" to enemies.
U.S. and Iranian ambassadors are due to meet on Monday in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq, where the United States has accused Iran of fomenting violence. Iran denies the accusations. The passage of the U.S. ships through the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow channel in the Gulf and major oil shipping lane, was the largest such move in daylight hours since the 2003 Iraq war. Most U.S. navy ships transit the straits at night, so as not to attract attention, and rarely in large numbers.
LUXEMBOURG (AP): The head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog said Thursday he agrees with U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran is three to eight years from being able to make nuclear arms and urged the United States and other Security Council members to abandon "rhetoric" in their bid to get Tehran to scale down its nuclear ambitions.
Iran can only be kept away from nuclear arms "through a comprehensive dialogue," said Mohamed ElBaradei. On Wednesday, his organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, reported Iran's uranium enrichment program was expanding and that the agency's knowledge of those activities was shrinking — a finding that may trigger new U.N. sanctions.
"We are moving toward Iran building (nuclear) capacity and knowledge, without (the IAEA) in a position to verify the nature or scope of that program," ElBaradei told a news conference in Luxembourg. ElBaradei would not offer his own view of when Iran will be able to produce nuclear weapons. But repeating previous comments, he added, "I tend to agree with (CIA estimates) that even if Iran wanted to go to nuclear weapons it would not be before the end of this decade or sometime in the middle of the next" — three to eight years. Pushed by the United States, France and Britain, the U.N. Security Council has already imposed sanctions twice on Tehran to make it abandon ever more sophisticated nuclear enrichment. The fear is that Iran wants to acquire nuclear arms. Tehran says it seeks to produce nothing more than nuclear energy.
Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have agreed to build a new natural gas pipeline north from the Caspian Sea. Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced the deal at a summit with Central Asian leaders in Turkmenistan.
The agreement ensures Russia's access to Turkmenistan's gas, and is a setback to rival US and European Union plans.
They had hoped to pipe Turkmen gas across the Caspian sea via Turkey, in order to reduce the EU's dependence on Russian-controlled energy. Following two days of negotiations the presidents of the three countries, meeting in the Turkmen port city of Turkmenbashi, announced they would sign a treaty on the planned pipeline by September. President Putin said the deal would mean increased energy supplies to Europe.
The new pipeline will carry gas from Turkmenistan, one of the world's largest sources of gas, through Kazakhstan to Russia.
The deal represents a victory for Russia, which buys Turkmen gas at below-market prices. The BBC's Natalia Antelava says the agreement is a huge blow to Washington, Brussels and Beijing, who have all been vying for direct access to Turkmenistan's gas. They have lobbied strongly for a route under the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and Turkey, bypassing Russia.
Turkmenistan's massive gas reserves are effectively controlled by Moscow, since it relies on Russian energy giant Gazprom's Soviet-era pipelines for distribution.
For two decades, the isolationist policy of Turkmenistan's late leader Saparmurat Niyazov made additional access impossible.
But his death last year opened a window of opportunity and it was hoped that new President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov would give the go-ahead to a trans-Caspian pipeline that would ease Europe's dependence on Kremlin-controlled energy.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Analysis: Russian pipeline deal
Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have reached a landmark gas pipeline deal that will strengthen Moscow's control over Central Asia's energy export routes. The BBC's regional analyst, Ian MacWilliam, examines what this means for Moscow.
On the face of it, this pipeline deal seems to be all in Russia's favour. It means that for the foreseeable future, most gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan will be exported via Russia. Moscow already buys Turkmen gas at less than market prices, enabling it to export its own vast gas resources to Europe more profitably. The Central Asians know that keeping the Kremlin happy will make their own lives easier. The Turkmen and Kazakh leaders both grew up under the Soviet Union and they will have noticed Moscow's furious reaction in past months when Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine angered the Kremlin.
But for the Central Asians, the Caspian pipeline to Russia is the best offer on the table. Washington and the EU have been backing a plan to build a pipeline westward under the Caspian Sea which would allow gas exports to Europe free of Russian control. But that plan is still little more than an idea and it would take years to find financial backing.
Turkmenistan's new President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has said the Western-backed plan is still on the agenda, but energy experts say it is still not even clear just how much gas Turkmenistan has, and therefore how viable a trans-Caspian pipeline would be.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, has said that work will start on the Russian pipeline by next year and it will mean that Turkmenistan can export more gas. The Central Asians will plan to diversify their export routes in the coming years as gas and oil production increases.