34 countries involved in mediterranean WMD exercise

As part of mock drills, warships participating in a large multinational exercise took off into the Turkish Mediterranean Friday in pursuit of a cargo ship said to be carrying weapons of mass destruction.

The exercise, with 34 countries participating, was a practice session to prepare for intercepting weapons materials before they reach a country such as Iran, Turkey’s neighbour.

Officials say co-operation-building exercises like this are crucial to keeping Iran or other countries from receiving shipments of materials that they could use to help build a nuclear weapon.

The mock drills began when a cargo ship left the port of Antalya without permission. Urgent intelligence reports then said the ship was carrying “smuggled materials”. It was assumed they were weapons materials on their way to a hostile country.

Within minutes, warships from the United States, Turkey, France and Portugal raced into the open seas to engage the cargo ship, and helicopters from a nearby base hovered overhead and attempted to make radio contact.

Observers were hosted aboard a Turkish naval frigate – the TCG Barbaros – for the exercise, which is said to be the largest so far of the Proliferation Security Initiative, or PSI, a programme started in 2003 by US President George Bush.

Though officials have repeatedly said the exercise, which also involves scenarios of searching vehicles carrying suspected weapons materials to an airport and a land customs gate, is not aimed at any specific country, all eyes are on Iran, which is not likely to see the hosting of the non-proliferation exercise as a friendly move by its Muslim neighbour.

Countries bordering Iran, including Persian Gulf countries and Turkey, have come under increasing pressure recently to cooperate with the US and pressure the Islamic Republic to give up what the US says is a secret nuclear weapons programme.

Analysts say the exercise will not only help increase preparedness for stopping illegal shipments that Iran could use in a weapons programme, but the show of multinational forces co-operating in Turkey will send the message that most of the world is united against Iran possessing those weapons.

“Iran already has most of what it needs for a nuclear weapon, but it continues to try to procure foreign components that would allow it to reach that capability faster and better,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has credited PSI with several successes already in intercepting shipments of missile and nuclear technology headed to Iran, but she did not elaborate on details.

PSI, however, is only one crucial part of a massive effort needed to prevent proliferation, said Charles Ferguson, fellow for science and technology at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“My view is that PSI fills the gaps,” Ferguson said. “The borders are porous in so many different areas, that’s why we can’t rely exclusively on PSI ... We also need to rely on more traditional tools such as export control, IAEA inspections and diplomacy.”

Ferguson said non-proliferation efforts concentrated too long on state-to-state transfers of technology and materials – until Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, admitted in 2004 to passing nuclear technology to other countries, showing that the dangerous game also involved individuals or small groups and was getting more complex.

Pakistan shares a long border with Iran.

Officials from 34 countries observed or participated in today’s exercise either from a naval ship or by computer, and militaries are expected to co-operate to track, board, search and disable the hostile ship.

There have been more than a dozen previous PSI exercises held in other countries, though Turkey says this one will be the largest yet.

When South Korea agreed to participate in an earlier PSI exercise, North Korea, also believed to have a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, called it a “war crime” and threatened all-out nuclear war.

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