Iran's Revolutionary Guards dismissed as "ridiculous" on Saturday a U.S.-led drive to impose sanctions on the elite force, underlining Tehran's defiance in the face of Western pressure over its nuclear program.
A top commander highlighted the unit's growing influence in the economy even as Guards ground, air and naval forces flexed their muscles in a drill in the key Strait of Hormuz oil route that began on Thursday.
Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, who heads the Guards' political bureau, also played down the impact of Western sanctions on its trading arms and personnel.
"Today, the Revolutionary Guards are proud to declare that they have the ability and know-how to easily replace large foreign companies," Javani told the ILNA news agency.
"For example, we can take up big projects in (the southern port and energy hub of) Assalouyeh and replace Total and Shell," he said, referring to oil majors that had previously been involved in Iran.
Iran's long-running dispute with the West over its atomic activities has made Western energy companies increasingly reluctant to invest in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
Analysts say the political and the economic influence of the Guards appears to have grown since hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a former Guardsman, came to power in 2005.
The force played a key role in quelling street unrest that erupted after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election last June.
The United States is pushing for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions on Tehran over its refusal to halt sensitive nuclear activities as demanded by the U.N. Security Council, including moves against members of the Guards and firms they control.
Diplomats from the five permanent Security Council members -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- and Germany are meeting nearly every day in New York to revise a U.S.-drafted sanctions proposal that Moscow and Beijing would like to see watered down, Western diplomats say.
"Imposing sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards is rather ridiculous because even with all the propaganda they couldn't reach their goal of imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic," ILNA news agency quoted Javani as saying.
"If the enemies think that by imposing sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards they can achieve their goals, they are mistaken," he added.
Iranian leaders often shrug off the impact of sanctions, saying such measures will not stop the country in pushing ahead with its nuclear program. The West suspects Iran is seeking to develop nuclear bombs, a charge Tehran rejects.