Stand-off in Gulf with Iran 'a bit like Cold War'

By Damien McElroy in Manama


Royal Navy warship HMS Cornwall is in the Gulf

Britain's most senior naval officer in the Gulf has likened the West's tense stand-off with Iran as being akin to "the height of the Cold War".

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Commodore Keith Winstanley also revealed that Royal Navy deployments in the region have almost doubled since October in a build-up that matches the rapid escalation of American maritime firepower.

Cdre Keith Winstanley

Cdre Winstanley, who serves as deputy commander of coalition maritime operations for US Central Command, said that British trade and strategic interests dictated the necessity of a high and sustained commitment to patrol the seas around the Middle East.

"If you look at the UK component we have almost doubled it," he said aboard Sutherland, a Type 23 frigate, in Mina al-Salman port in Bahrain. "Most of these ships are here on training missions but there is no doubt that we could use the warfighting capabilities they possess."

Cdre Winstanley said there was a message for Iran in the expansion of the coalition fleet in the waters of the Gulf, Sea of Oman and Arabian Sea.

"There are extra challenges facing us," he said. "There have been a series of Iranian exercises in the northern Gulf to the point that it's a bit like with the Russians at the height of the Cold War.

"We just have to hope that's not a recipe for miscalculation."

Royal Navy commanders insist the build-up in the Gulf has not been ordered by the Ministry of Defence in direct response to Teheran's pursuit of an atomic weapons programme in defiance of a United Nations Security Council resolution.

But there are hopes that additional vessels will intensify pressure on the regime in Teheran to abandon its nuclear activities.

While most of the coalition is engaged in routine patrols, Cdre Winstanley refers to the area of operations as the battle-space.

Commitments include protecting Iraq's southern oil terminals against attack until the Iraqi navy can prove its competence to ensuring the six miles of shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz remain open.

Up to 80 per cent of Europe's trade with the Far East and a substantial proportion of the world's oil and gas passes through local waters.

Nineteen countries belong to the coalition commanded by US Admiral Patrick Walsh. Maps at the command centre show the position of 45 naval vessels from the southern coast of Pakistan to the east coast of Africa.

An Iranian cleric walks past a mural in Teheran

Iran launched its first rocket into space for ‘research purposes’

Terrorist threats and piracy loom large in operational plans. Cdre Bruce Williams, who commands Task 150, the southern segment of the coalition, said the concentration of naval firepower has steadily reduced the risk to commercial shipping.

His comments came as Iran launched its most aggressive salvo yet in the war of words over its "unstoppable" nuclear programme, promising that it was prepared "even for war".

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likened his country's harnessing of nuclear technology — which the West fears could be used to make an atomic weapon — to a "train which has no brake and no reverse gear".

Iran also launched its first rocket into space yesterday. According to scientists at Iran's aerospace centre, the rocket was "carrying material intended for research created by the ministries of science and defence".

It remained briefly in low orbit before falling back to earth by parachute -— a first for Iran.

Officials from the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany meet in London today to discuss possible sanctions after Iran ignored a deadline last week for it to halt its suspect nuclear activities.