U.S.-led Gulf War Game Aims a Message at Tehran

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Frigates, patrol boats and intelligence and law enforcement officers from 23 nations are massing in Bahrain over the weekend, poised to stalk and intercept a British-flagged ship as it steams across the Persian Gulf with a cargo purported to be parts for a nuclear weapons program. If all goes as planned the vessel will be intercepted Monday before it reaches a destination that a senior U.S. official would identify only as a "country of proliferation concern." But he added, "I understand the exercise has gotten the attention of the Iranian government."

Which is just the way the U.S. and its allies want it. While the international diplomatic effort to stop Iran from acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons appears stymied, Plan B is the Proliferation Security Initiative, an anti-smuggling project launched by the U.S. and ten partners in 2003 and now boasting 80 participating nations. Next week's multinational training exercise, codenamed "Leading Edge," represents the first such counter-proliferation war game to be staged in the Gulf, and the first to include the participation of the Gulf states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The timing of the complicated naval exercise, which may be partly visible from Iran's coastline, is not an accident. It is clearly meant as a signal to Tehran that its neighbors are prepared to move aggressively to prevent it from obtaining the parts and materials necessary to advance its uranium enrichment process — a process the U.S. and many of its allies believe, but Iran denies, is ultimately intended to develop nuclear weapons.

It also carries also a message for North Korea. On Oct. 14, after the country tested a nuclear device, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted trade and travel sanctions on Pyongyang. But the success of the sanctions depends on vigilance by authorities in the neighboring countries. Two of those key neighbors, Russia and South Korea, have declined to sign on to the PSI as full-fledged participants, but are sending observers to Bahrain for the exercise.

Notably absent, however, will be North Korea's most important economic ally, China. Still, a top U.S. official says in meetings in Beijing last week, Secretary Condoleezza Rice received some encouragement when she pressed for tighter controls along China's thinly-patrolled 880-mile border with North Korea to enforce U.N. Security Council-mandated sanctions barring commerce that would advance that nation's nuclear and missile programs. "The Chinese reaffirmed that they support the principles and the objectives of the [Proliferation Security] Initiative but they're not at a point…where they're able to formally endorse the initiative," says the U.S. official.

To thwart the possibility of North Korea-Iran exchanges of technology and know-how on long-range missiles — U.S. intelligence believes some of Iran's missiles are based on North Korean designs — and nuclear devices, the Bush administration has assiduously courted the Sunni-dominated Gulf states that serve as key banking and shipping centers for Iran. Next week's exercises are being heralded by Bush Administration officials as a sign that the political leaders in the Gulf accept the U.S. view on the Iranian threat. But some U.S. officials acknowledge it's too soon to tell whether the Gulf states will actually move aggressively to root out Iranian front companies and bank accounts used to acquire materials for the nuclear program, and to pay Hizballah, Hamas and other terrorist groups.

The U.S. is also paying special attention to the Central Asian states where flights between Iran and North Korea might seek to land for refueling. Earlier this month, Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph went to Central Asia and obtained endorsements from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan for the PSI. Uzbekistan was already cooperating and, according to U.S. officials, Kyrgyzstan promised to consider joining the initiative

The Bush administration is counting heavily on the Proliferation Security Initiative to delay Iran's nuclear progress. Washington knows that even if the U.N. Security Council passes some mild sanctions — a travel ban and a ban on trade in nuclear and missile program components — now being debated by the U.S., Europe, Russia and China, Tehran will almost certainly ignore these measures. And even if stiffer economic sanctions were to be adopted, Western diplomats acknowledge that Iran's windfall oil profits would cushion the impact.

And besides, says a senior European diplomat, Iranian politicians are using the nuclear issue "as a sort of litmus test of the revolutionary spirit." Privately, he says, key Western officials have concluded grimly that, for the present, "sanctions are not a strategy" because as long as compromise means appeasement, no aspiring Iranian leader is likely to embrace it. No surprise, then, that Iran's government news agency, ISNA, reported Friday that nuclear scientists have begun feeding uranium gas into a second 164-machine cascade of centrifuges.

Pyongyang is considered even less vulnerable to outside pressure than Tehran because Kim Jong-il and his inner circle are thought to be utterly insensitive to the suffering of the populace. "They're closer to Al Capone than a state," says a top European diplomat involved in the multinational negotiations.