TEHRAN - Iran on Dec. 24 began 10 days of wargames around the Strait of Hormuz, a vital route in the Gulf through which more than a third of the world's ship-borne oil passes.
IRAN'S NAVY COMMANDER Adm. Habibollah Sayari points at a map during a press conference in Tehran on Dec. 22, saying that Iran will launch 10 days of naval drills on Dec. 24. (Hamed Jafarnejad / AFP via Getty Images)
The Velayat-90 military exercises, announced Dec. 22 by navy chief Adm. Habibollah Sayari, kicked off as planned, Iran's Arabic-language broadcaster Al-Alam reported. Iranian navy forces were being deployed throughout the wargame area to the east of the Strait of Hormuz, comprising the Gulf of Oman around to the Gulf of Aden, in the first phase of the exercises, Al-Alam said, citing navy command.
The exercises were taking place at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West, with sanctions being ramped up over Tehran's nuclear program.
The United States, which maintains its own navy presence in the Gulf, has noted Iran's drill. Tehran in September rejected a Washington call for a military hotline between the capitals to defuse any "miscalculations" that could occur in the Gulf.
The wargames were ordered as the United States and its allies ratchet up economic sanctions on Iran, targeting its oil and financial sectors. More measures were expected to be imposed in coming weeks. The sanctions have helped fuel a depreciation of Iran's currency, the rial.
A rumor that spread last Dec. 13 from an Iranian lawmaker's comments that Tehran was to block the Strait of Hormuz in the drill sent the rial to a new low and oil prices soaring before it was denied by the government.
While the foreign ministry said last week such drastic action was "not on the agenda," it reiterated Iran's threat of "reactions" if the current tensions with the West spilled over into open confrontation.
Most Western countries believe Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, despite Tehran's denials. Iran-U.S. tensions have also worsened over U.S. accusations of a thwarted Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Iran's capture this month of a CIA drone, and Tehran's arrest and detention of an American-Iranian it alleges is a CIA spy.
TOKYO - Japanese defense minister Yasuo Ichikawa said on Dec. 24 that Tokyo plans to relax a decades-old ban on arms exports to allow Japanese firms to participate in multinational weapons development projects.
The decision, expected to be announced Dec. 27, is likely to stimulate the domestic arms industry while reducing the country's defense spending.
"We will build a new framework," Ichikawa told reporters, stressing the need for lifting the ban as the "cost of highly capable defense equipment has increased".
The self-imposed ban has been in effect since 1967, which critics say has resulted in Japan's military hardware becoming outdated, while rival China's military machine continues to grow and becomes increasingly assertive.
Japan's policy on arms exports is a subject of intense interest to foreign defense contractors, as it could pave the way for greater international cooperation on a host of weapons systems from missile defenses to fighter jets.
The ban has long been seen as an obsolete legacy of the cold war era, and Japanese political leaders have long debated whether and when to lift it.
Supporters of Japan's traditional pacifist positions have warned against such a move, while any attempts in the past by Tokyo to expand its military might have rankled regional powers like China.
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Dec. 24 welcomed a statement by army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani ruling out a military takeover in the country.
Tensions between the army and government appeared to have soared in recent days over a secret memo that allegedly sought U.S. intervention to prevent a feared coup.
"He (Kayani) strongly dispelled the speculations of any military takeover and said that these are misleading and are being used as a bogey to divert the focus from real issues," aDec. 23 military statementcited Kayani as saying.
This statement "is extremely well taken by democratic circles in the country", Gilani said Dec. 24 during a televised interaction with the local media in Islamabad.
The military has carried out three coups in Pakistan and is considered the chief arbiter of power in the country of 174 million.
Kayani's statement came after Pakistan's top judge also ruled out the possibility of a coup as he examined calls from the army and the opposition to probe the memo scandal.
On Dec. 22, Gilani delivered an unprecedented tirade against the military and accused "conspirators" - whom he did not name - of plotting to bring down his government.
But Kayani dismissed those concerns, saying that the army "will continue to support the democratic process in the country".
The leaked memo allegedly sought U.S. intervention to prevent a feared military coup in exchange for overhauling Pakistan's security leadership after U.S. troops killed Osama bin Laden near the Pakistani capital on May 2.
The existence of the document came to light when American-Pakistani businessman Mansoor Ijaz wrote in the Financial Times that President Asif Ali Zardari feared the military might overthrow his government.
Ijaz accused Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington and a close Zardari aide, of crafting the memo with the president's support.
Haqqani flatly denies the accusations but was forced to resign as ambassador last month.
SEOUL - North Korea's ruling party hailed the son of late leader Kim Jong-Il as "supreme commander" of the military on Dec. 24 in the latest sign that the untested successor is tightening his grip on power.
Experts said the move indicated that Pyongyang would maintain its Songun (military-first) policy, blamed for the deaths of thousands of people to starvation as the isolated regime diverts resources to its armed forces.
"We will uphold Comrade Kim Jong-Un as our supreme commander and general and we will bring the Songun revolution to a completion," the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling communist party, said in an editorial.
The newspaper urged Jong-Un, Kim's youngest son, to lead North Korea to "eternal victory".
It is the first time that the North's official media has used the title supreme commander - a post previously held by his father - for the new leader, already a four-star general despite only being in his late 20s.
"This shows that Jong-Un now has a firm grip on the military and the North is heralding this to the outside world," professor Kim Yong-Hyun of Dongguk University in Seoul told AFP.
"It also suggests that the North will continue with its Songun policy at least in the foreseeable future."
North Korea on Dec. 19 described the untested Jong-Un as the "great successor" after announcing the death of his father at age 69.
Experts said the latest acclamation is particularly significant because it came on the 20th anniversary of the declaration of Kim Jong-Il as supreme commander.
The dynasty's latest ruler remains a figure of mystery to the outside world, which is seeking clues to future policy in the nuclear-armed nation.
The son was appointed to senior military and party posts in September 2010, paving the way for a third-generation hereditary succession after the late Kim succeeded his own father Kim Il-Sung in the 1990s.
The country's regular armed forces total 1.19 million and the regime has a policy prioritizing the military's needs over those of civilians.
The elder Kim perpetuated his power using an all-pervading personality cult inherited from his father, and the North's propaganda machine has cranked into action to burnish the image of Jong-Un.
State media reported Dec. 24 that Kim Jong-Il's "loving care" for the North Korean people lingered even beyond his death, with residents in the capital enjoying a special treat of fresh fish.
The late leader took steps on the eve of his demise to supply the rare luxury, and Jong-Un ensured the fish was rushed to the people while in mourning, according to the Rodong Sinmun.
"Salespersons and citizens burst out sobbing at fish shops in the capital," it said, carrying pictures of housewives shedding tears of gratitude.
Kim Jong-Il presided over a 1990s famine that saw hundreds of thousands of people die, and there are still chronic food shortages in the impoverished communist state, particularly outside the privileged capital.
Activists in South Korea on Saturday sent 800 pairs of winter socks carried by balloons across the border to the North, where they can be exchanged for food. Temperatures fall well below freezing during the North's harsh winters.
South Korea also confirmed that the wife of its late president Kim Dae-Jung would visit the North next week on an unofficial visit to pay respects.
Former first lady Lee Hee-Ho, accompanied by Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jung-Eun, will cross the heavily militarised border and travel overland to Pyongyang, but will not stay for Dec. 28's funeral, the government said.
South Korea, in a conciliatory move at a time of high tensions, on Dec. 21 expressed sympathy to the North's people, but not the communist regime.
It said it would permit only Lee and Hyun's delegation to visit the North to convey their private condolences. South Koreans must receive government permission for all contacts with the North.
Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Jong-Il held the first-ever North-South summit in 2000, while the Hyundai Group pioneered cross-border business exchanges.
WASHINGTON - U.S. experts sent to Libya to recover weapons left over by the regime of fallen leader Moammar Gadhafi have found about 5,000 surface-to-air missiles, the State Department said Dec. 23.
The exact number is difficult to say, said spokesman Mark Toner, as there is no actual inventory and a number were destroyed in NATO air strikes this year.
"We support the Libyan government as it works on this ... to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate the militias. It's clearly a high priority for them," Toner said.
The State Department was still trying to evaluate how many missiles existed in the North African nation, which can pose a danger to civilian aircraft, Toner said.
But he refused to confirm rumors that the United States was seeking to buy back some of the weapons which might have been looted from open stockpiles in the chaos of the unrest which toppled Gadhafi earlier this year.
"I just would say that as we deal with the challenge of destroying (such missiles) MANPADS, we are looking at a variety of methods," he added.
ISLAMABAD - The Pakistani military rejected the findings of the U.S. investigation into the NATO attacks on Pakistani border posts on the night of Nov. 25-26 that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Though no detailed rebuttal was made by the Pakistani military, Inter-Services Public Relations - the military's public relations arm - stated it did not agree with the U.S.'s findings and labeled them as being "short on facts."
Pakistan said a detailed response would be given when it received a formal report. No additional information from the military was forthcoming when contacted.
The U.S. Department of Defense said in a statement that the attacks were not intentional. The DoD found "inadequate coordination by U.S. and Pakistani military officers operating through the border coordination center - including our reliance on incorrect mapping information shared with the Pakistani liaison officer - resulted in a misunderstanding about the true location of Pakistani military units."
"This, coupled with other gaps in information about the activities and placement of units from both sides, contributed to the tragic result," the statement said.
The misidentification by the NATO forces of the Pakistani position rests on claims they were initially fired upon. However, the Pakistan military continues to deny that its troops opened fire first.
South Asia analyst and former Australian defense attaché to Islamabad, Brian Cloughley, called the report into question because of how the investigation was carried out.
"How can you have a proper investigation when only one side is involved?" Cloughley said. He called the investigation a "farce" due to Pakistan not being consulted.
Coughley said he does not think the report will improve relations between Pakistan and International Security Assistance Forces under NATO's command, which the Nov. 25 incident further damaged.
"I don't think there is a hope of recovery," he said.
BEIJING - Beijing on Dec. 23 denied that a ship docked in Finland with more than 69 surface-to-air Patriot missiles on board had anything to do with China.
Finnish authorities are investigating after the missiles, produced by U.S. firm Raytheon, were discovered on a British-registered ship bound for the Chinese port city of Shanghai.
Finnish customs are investigating the case as one of illegal export of defense material. Two Ukrainians - the ship's captain and the first mate - have been detained.
"I don't see the ship transporting the missiles having anything to do with China," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told a regular briefing.
"I don't know why there is always someone who likes to link certain kinds of things with China and I have noticed the relevant report and I hope to clear up this event."
Germany's defense ministry has said the missiles came from its military and were destined for South Korea. A spokesman said the shipment was a "legal sale on the basis of an accord between two states at the government level".
He said the transaction had received an official export authorization and was reported to customs authorities.
ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has ruled out a military takeover in the country, describing rumors about a coup amid a political scandal as "misleading," the military said Dec. 23.
GEN. ASHFAQ KAYANI said in a statement that "[the] Pakistan Army has and will continue to support the democratic process in the country." (Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP)
"He (Kayani) strongly dispelled the speculations of any military takeover and said that these are misleading and are being used as a bogey to divert the focus from the real issues," a military statement cited him as saying.
The general, who was addressing troops in the Mohmand and Kurram tribal regions near the Afghan border on Dec. 22, "reiterated that (the) Pakistan Army has and will continue to support the democratic process in the country," according to the statement.
The army chief's remarks were made public several hours after Pakistan's top judge Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry also ruled out a military coup.
"Rest assured ... in this country there is no question of (military) takeover because the people trust the apex court now," said the chief justice while hearing petitions calling for an investigation into a memo scandal.
A panel headed by Chaudhry is deliberating whether to order a probe into allegations that a close aide of President Asif Ali Zardari wrote asking for U.S. help to prevent a feared coup and reign in the military's power in May.
The armed forces have carried out three coups in Pakistan and is considered the chief arbiter of power in the country of 174 million.
"It doesn't make things easier, that's for sure," the executive said. "That makes relations tense with France."
Eurosam, a joint venture between French electronics company Thales and European missile maker MBDA, is prime contractor for the Sol-Air Moyenne Portée/Terrestre (SAMP/T) ground-based air defense system.
The SAMP/T system is competing in Turkey's tender for a long-range air and missile defense system. It is ranged against the Patriot missile from Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, the S300 from Russia's Rosoboronexport, and the HQ-9 from China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corp. (CPMIEC).
MBDA's team in Turkey is led by its Italian side, as there are strong industrial ties between Italy and Turkey, including cooperation between AgustaWestland and Turkish Aerospace Industries on the T-129 light attack helicopter.
"The SAMP/T offer in Turkey is officially made by Eurosam … but MBDA's Italian arm has effectively been the front office for the offer for a while now due to the ongoing friction between Turkey and France due in part to the genocide issue," said an Italian industrial source.
The SAMP/T is based on the MBDA Aster 30 missile and Thales Arabel multifunction radar. France and Italy were launch customers of the SAMP/T.
Between 2006 and 2010, France delivered a total 203.6 million euros of arms to Turkey, the latest annual report to parliament on French foreign military sales showed.
That made an annual average 40 million euros, or around 1 pct of average annual sales of 4 billion-5 billion euros.
As part of Ankara's response to the new law, French military aircraft cannot overfly or land on Turkish territory, French warships may not dock at its ports, and joint military exercises are canceled.
"From now on, we are revising our relations with France," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, AFP reported.
JERUSALEM - Israel has cancelled the sale of air surveillance equipment to Turkey over fears that it might fall into the hands of countries hostile to the Jewish state, the Haaretz daily said Dec. 22.
The report said that the contract was signed in 2008 with Elbit Systems and worth some $140 million.
Ynetnews, reporting the same story, said both the defense ministry and Elbit had confirmed the cancellation.
Haaretz's website said the decision was made "out of security concerns, principally in consideration of Turkey's ties with enemy states of Israel, particularly Iran."
It said the defense ministry highlighted that "we do not allow such advanced technology to fall into other hands, in this way the system can fall into enemy hands."
Export of any military equipment or defense technology is subject to ministry approval.
Haaretz said that, when asked about the cancellation, a security official said "ties with Turkey are extremely important to the state, but we have a security responsibility over any product that is given approval for export."
Once-flourishing Turkish-Israeli ties plunged into deep crisis last year when Israeli forces killed nine Turks in a raid on a Turkish ferry, part of an activist flotilla carrying aid to Gaza.