- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Navy began a major exercise near Iran’s Persian Gulf coast yesterday amid tensions with Tehran over stepped-up nuclear activities and ongoing support for insurgents in Iraq.

Two aircraft carriers and a helicopter assault ship, along with 17,000 Marines and sailors, are engaged in the maneuvers to support operations in Iraq and for “expeditionary strike force” training, the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet headquarters said.

The United States has criticized Iran for supplying insurgents in Iraq with deadly armor-piercing roadside bombs and other explosives. U.S. and Iranian officials will meet Monday in Baghdad to discuss Iran’s role in Iraq, and talks between Iran and the European Union on the nuclear issue are set for late this month.

Meanwhile, an updated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report made public yesterday stated that Iran had stepped up illicit uranium enrichment and that Tehran’s refusal to cooperate in international controls had reduced the agency’s ability to monitor the program.

“Because the agency has not been receiving for over a year information that Iran used to provide,” the IAEA’s “level of knowledge of certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear-related activities has deteriorated,” the four-page report to the U.N. Security Council stated.

R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, said yesterday that the United States opposes concessions to Iran on uranium enrichment.

“We are not going to agree to accept limited enrichment, to accept that 1,300 centrifuges can continue spinning at their plant at Natanz,” Mr. Burns said.

At the White House, a spokesman called the IAEA report “a laundry list of Iran’s continued defiance of the international community.” “The United States will consult with our partners on next steps, but now is the time for Iran to comply with the United Nations Security Council, cooperate with the IAEA and most importantly, suspend its enrichment-related activities,” spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Navy spokesman Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl said in a telephone interview from Bahrain that the military exercise is not directed at any nation.

“This is not a precursor to any offensive action,” Cmdr. Aandahl said.

Despite efforts by the Navy to play down the saber rattling, Iranian military officials denounced the exercise as U.S. intimidation.

Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said in Tehran in response to the naval exercise that Iran will resist any threat.

“Islamic Iran will resist… any kind of threat and will give a powerful answer to enemies and oppressors,” he told the official IRNA news agency Cmdr Aandahl said the military exercises will include surface and anti-submarine warfare practice, as well as aviation sorties. The ships involved include the carriers USS John C. Stennis and USS Nimitz and the helicopter carrier USS Bonhomme Richard, which has 2,200 Marines.

The exercises currently are limited to U.S. Navy ships but could include forces from coalition nations such as Australia, Britain, Denmark, France or Pakistan in the near future.

“We are conducting this training in order to gain valuable experience across a wide spectrum of naval disciplines,” said the 5th Fleet commander, Vice Adm.

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