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With Iran, watch the play away from the ball

The forthcoming negotiations with the Islamic Republic may be the sideshow for what's really happening in the Persian Gulf

Basketball mavens do take their eyes off the ball. A lot. In fact, 90 percent of a basketball game is played “away from the ball” on both defense and offense. Players’ movements and positioning on both sides of the court set up the actual shot at the basket. Coaches tell about a basketball star who scored 31 points in a college game despite possessing the ball for all of 48 seconds in the whole game.

In the international affairs arena today all eyes are focused on the forthcoming negotiations between Iran and the Western P5+1 in Baghdad on May 23. Will the Iranians and the Western nations continue to make nice as they did in Istanbul last month? Will the Iranians make concessions on their nuclear enrichment program (unlikely) or continue their successful tactic of stalling while the centrifuges whirl?  After the Istanbul meeting on April 14, Western diplomats felt optimistic, reporting that the Iranians were “engaged.”

But the real action is away from center-court in Baghdad, before May 23, and the players’ movements and positioning could determine the outcome of the diplomatic game. Here is a list of just some of non-diplomatic actions taking place, bearing in mind that some may be feints (as in any high-stakes competition, the field is loaded with “trash-talk”):


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made political waves when he visited the tiny Gulf island of Abu Musalast month, the first time an Iranian leader set foot on the territory also claimed by the United Arab Emirates. He was followed to the four-square-mile crumb-on-a-map by more Iranian officials last week. The island is strategically located at one end of the Strait of Hormuz, and could be one of the many issues that ignites the next Gulf war.

If a war breaks out, it’s likely to start in the Strait of Hormuz, and not as the result of an Israeli bombing mission. A likely scenario: A big tanker or a US Navy ship hits an Iranian mine or an Iranian “fast boat” buzzing around US Navy ships gets a little too close.

It’s worthwhile, therefore, to remember the 1988 Operation Praying Mantis, a brief but full-scale naval war fought between the United States and Iran after a US Navy ship hit an Iranian mine and almost sank. Both sides sent aircraft into the air to attack the others’ naval vessels. When the smoke cleared, several Iranian ships, including fast boats, had been sunk and Iranian oil platforms destroyed. The naval forces and firepower available to both sides were tiny compared to today, as were the Iranian bravado and regional ambitions.


Last month the Iranians announced that certain areas of the Gulf were off-limits to the US Navy. In recent months, since the Iranians threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz artery, four US Navy strike groups have visited the Gulf. Strike groups consist of warships that accompany aircraft carriers. Two carriers are on station today, the USS Lincoln and the USS Enterprise (which was involved in Operation Praying Mantis). The USS Vinson, which defiantly sailed through the Strait of Hormuz in March, is not far away in the Indian Ocean, attached to the 7th Fleet, according to the latest reports.

The USS Enterprise (public domain via Wikipedia)
The USS Enterprise (public domain via Wikipedia)


The US Air Force transferred last week an unknown number of its most advanced stealth fighter aircraft, the F-22, to the United Arab Emirates, probably to an airbase 300 kilometers from the Iranian border. An Air Force spokesman explained in diplo-military-speak that the deployments were meant to “strengthen military-to-military relationships, promote sovereign and regional security, improve combined tactical air operations, and enhance interoperability of forces, equipment and procedures.”


The (Arabian) Gulf Cooperation Council just completed a major military exercise codenamed “Islands of Loyalty.” (What islands might they be talking about?) Abu Dhabi’s news agency reported that “successful amphibious operations were staged … under massive air cover in the war-game exercise.” The GCC’s Peninsula Shield forces are made up of personnel from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and the UAE.


Last month, Bahrain’s military announced that aircraft from the United States and “eight other countries [were] taking part in the Gulf nation’s largest air force exercise in more than two decades.” More than 100 planes were involved in the exercise. Bahrain is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.


Two Saudi F-15s crashed in 2012, including one in a collision with a French Mirage fighter during joint exercises in Saudi Arabia. That’s an interesting pairing of French and Saudi forces, especially since both countries take the Iranian nuclear development very seriously. Joint exercises may mean they’re taking the military option up a notch. Will French policy change under the new government?


The US Central Command (CENTCOM) told Al Jazeera last week that “There are about 125,000 US troops in close proximity to Iran: 90,000 soldiers in/around Afghanistan on Operation Enduring Freedom; some 20,000 soldiers deployed ashore elsewhere in the Near East region; and a variable 15-20,000 afloat on naval vessels.”


Lt. Rebecca Rebarich, US Fifth Fleet spokeswoman, gave Al Jazeera a run-down of the fleet’s assets: “Aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65) is operating in the Arabian Sea, conducting missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) is conducting maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf. There are approximately 16,000 personnel at sea aboard more than 40 US Navy, Coast Guard and fleet auxiliary ships in the US Fifth Fleet .”


Where is the French aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle? Several recent reports claim that it is moving toward the Gulf.


According to news reports this week, Israel mobilized several reserve brigades to guard the Egyptian (that includes Gaza) and northern borders. On the other sides of those borders are Iranian allies.


Meanwhile, Iran is complaining of tanks gathering along its border with Azerbaijan, an ally of both the United States and Israel.


Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hatching naval mischief in the Red Sea as well? (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)
Is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hatching naval mischief in the Red Sea as well? (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

Finally, a Bahraini politician close to the Iranians inserted Israel in the kerfuffle over the Abu Musa Island. An Iranian news agency reported that the Bahrain Freedom Movement’s Saeed Shihabi “censured the UAE for its irrational reaction to the Iranian president’s recent visit to the Persian Gulf island of Abu Musa, while leaving its crucial border disputes with Saudi Arabia.” Shihabi continued: “The Persian Gulf Arab states have various border disputes among themselves, and they had better have shown a reaction to the occupation of the Saudi islands of Tiran and Sanafir by the Zionist regime instead of waging a propaganda campaign against Iran.” (emphasis added)

Tiran and Sanafir are two islands in the Straits of Tiran at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba (Eilat) situated between the Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. The Straits are infamous after Egypt Gamal Abdul Nasser blockaded the waterway to Israeli shipping, sparking the 1967 Six-Day War. Today, a Multinational Force (MFO) is stationed on the island, observing and ensuring free passage.

But the Tiran Straits are not far from the Bab el Mandeb, the narrow gateway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal beyond. In recent months, Iranian ships have been seen in the region, possibly involved with Eritrea or Djibouti, and sailing through the Canal to Syria. Clearly, Iran is checking out possible scenarios for mischief in naval chokepoints other than the Strait of Hormuz.

What do all the military movement, exercises, and activity portend? Maybe nothing. But 90 percent of the game takes place away from the ball, even weeks before the Baghdad diplomatic tip-off.

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today he is director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a public affairs consultant and publishes israeldailypicture.com. He is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs."