Washinton, Oct 28: At loggerheads with Tehran over its nuclear program, about 25 nations will take part in a naval exercise in the Gulf right across from Iran next week to practice stopping ships with nuclear materials, said US officials.
The mission takes place at a time when major powers are considering a UN sanctions resolution against Iran over its nuclear plans. It is also the first such exercise since North Korea launched an underground nuclear test on October 9, resulting in UN weapons and financial sanctions against Pyongyang.
The exercise, hosted by Bahrain in international waters, will start in the Gulf on Monday and will involve vessels from the United States, France, Italy, Australia, Britain as well as Bahrain, said a senior State Department official.
Aircraft and other ''operational assets'' will be provided by those six nations, the State Department said.
''This is an exercise that will test our capacity to intercept illicit trafficking,'' said senior State Department official Bob Joseph of the exercise.
US officials said the exercise had been planned for many months and was expected to be met with some interest by Iran.
''From Iranian news reports, we know the exercise got the attention of Iran,'' said Joseph.
Observers to the two-day exercise, called ''Leading Edge,'' will include Gulf countries Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Korea, Japan and Russia in the 25th such mission organized under the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative.
PSI was created in 2003 by President George W. Bush with the goal of agreeing to share intelligence information and work against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including through military exercises such as next week's.
As part of Monday's exercise, a ''target vessel'' will be purportedly carrying materials useful to a nuclear weapons programme and the goal will be to interdict this ship and prevent the materials from reaching an unspecified ''country of nuclear proliferation concern'' in the region.
The United States hopes to use PSI to increase international cooperation to prevent North Korea from transferring any nuclear technology, particularly to Iran.
While the naval exercise is going on, the five major nuclear weapons states and seven other countries are due to meet in Morocco to implement another initiative to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of extremist groups.
That meeting will be led by the United States and Russia and follows an initiative agreed to by Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in St Petersburg last July.