A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said on Thursday the United States was not in a position to tell Tehran “what to do in the Strait of Hormuz,” state television reported, after the U.S. said it would preserve oil shipments in the Gulf.
Tehran’s threat to block traffic through the crucial passage for Middle Eastern crude suppliers followed the European Union’s decision to tighten sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, as well as accompanying moves by the United States to tighten unilateral sanctions.
Iran’s English-language Press TV quoted Hossein Salami as saying: “Any threat will be responded by threat ... We will not relinquish our strategic moves if Iran’s vital interests are undermined by any means,” according to Reuters.
Separately, Salami was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency: “Americans are not in a position whether to allow Iran to close off the Strait of Hormuz.”
The U.S. Fifth Fleet said on Wednesday it would not allow any disruption to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, a strip of water separating Oman and Iran.
At loggerheads with the West over its nuclear program, Iran said earlier it would stop the flow of oil through the strait if sanctions were imposed on its crude exports.
The Iranian threat pushed up international oil prices on Tuesday although they slipped back on Wednesday in thin trade.
Analysts say that Iran could potentially cause havoc in the Strait of Hormuz which connects the biggest Gulf oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. At its narrowest point, it is 21 miles (34 km) across.
But its navy would be no match for the firepower of the Fifth Fleet which consists of 20-plus ships supported by combat aircraft, with 15,000 people afloat and another 1,000 ashore.
This is not the first time the Iranians have threatened to disrupt the oil flow in the Gulf, including in 2008 and 2010 when Iran talked about shutting the Strait as retaliation for any military strike on the country’s nuclear sites.
Neither the United States nor Israel have ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve a long-running dispute over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, has described Iran's nuclear program as a threat to its existence. Iran refuses to recognize Israel.
Tehran says it needs nuclear technology to generate electricity. Iran has been hit by foreign sanctions, including four rounds of U.N. sanctions, over its refusal to halt its sensitive nuclear work.
To show off its military capabilities, Iran launched a 10-day large-scale naval war games in the Gulf on Saturday.
The tough language came as Iran’s navy said a U.S. aircraft carrier entered a zone where its ships and aircraft were in the middle of 10 days of war games designed to be a show of military might.
The area was in waters to the east of the Strait of Hormuz, a choke point at the entrance to the Gulf through which more than a third of the world's tanker-borne oil passes, according to AFP.
Admiral Sayari said the U.S. aircraft carrier was monitored by Iranian forces as it passed from the Strait of Hormuz to the Gulf of Oman, according to state television.
The network showed footage of an aircraft carrier being followed by an Iranian plane.
An Iranian navy spokesman, Commodore Mahmoud Mousavi, told the official IRNA news agency the U.S. carrier went “inside the maneuver zone” where Iranian ships were conducting their exercises.
He added that the Iranian navy was “prepared, in accordance with international law, to confront offenders who do not respect our security perimeters during the maneuvers.”
The aircraft carrier was believed to the USS John C. Stennis, one of the American navy’s biggest warships.
U.S. officials said Wednesday that the ship and its accompanying carrier strike group was moving through the Strait of Hormuz.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said this was “a pre-planned, routine transit” on the way to the Arabian Sea to provide air power for the war in Afghanistan.
The United States maintains a navy presence in the Gulf in large part to ensure oil traffic there is unhindered. Its Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.
Earlier this month, Iranian officials said a Revolutionary Guards cyber-warfare unit had hacked the controls of a U.S. bat-winged RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drone and brought it down safely.
Analysts and oil market traders are watching the developing situation in and around the Strait of Hormuz carefully, fearing that a spark could ignite open confrontation between the long-time foes.
The United States had proposed a military hotline between Tehran and Washington to defuse any “miscalculations” that could occur as their navies brush against each other. But Iran in September rejected that offer.