Iran has never in its history tried to close the Strait of Hormuz, the vital shipping route at the center of increasing international tension, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Thursday.
“Iran has never in its history tried to prevent, to put any obstacles in the way of this important maritime route,” he said in an interview with NTV television during a visit to Turkey.
Salehi also warned Arab neighbors not to put themselves in a “dangerous position” by allying themselves too closely with Washington in the escalating row over Tehran’s nuclear activity.
“We want peace and tranquility in the region. But some of the countries in our region, they want to direct other countries 12,000 miles away from this region,” Salehi said in English during a visit to Turkey.
The remark was an apparent reference to the alliance of Iran’s Arab neighbors with the United States, which has a huge fleet in the Gulf and says it will keep the waterway open.
“I am calling to all countries in the region, please don’t let yourselves be dragged into a dangerous position,” he told Turkey’s NTV broadcaster.
Iran threatened in December to close the narrow and strategic waterway ̶ a chokepoint for one fifth of the world’s traded oil ̶ in the event of a military strike or the severe tightening of international sanctions.
That set up a tense standoff with the United States which sent a second aircraft carrier to the region as Tehran announced new naval maneuvers in the Strait within the next few weeks.
Washington should be willing to hold talks with Tehran with no preconditions, he said.
Iran’s military in 1987 and 1988 laid mines in the waters of the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf to make the channel hazardous for oil tankers from Iraq, with which it was at war.
In April 1988, a U.S. warship struck one of the mines and nearly sank. The U.S. military subsequently launched Operation Preying Mantis, destroying two Iranian oil platforms and several vessels.
Mines left over from that conflict, and from the 1990-1991 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, were being picked up in the coastal waters in the northern Gulf up to a decade later.
Meanwhile, U.S.-based experts said that Iran has no desire to carry out its threat of closing the Strait of Hormuz to head off fresh Western economic sanctions because doing so would damage the regime’s own interests.
Iran is brandishing the vital shipping route ̶ a chokepoint for one fifth of the world's traded oil ̶ as a pawn in the battle being played out against the United States and other leading nations over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
But the potential effects of taking firm action has left Tehran blowing hot and cold on the issue and could be part of a wider series of threats that Iran is willing to make to defend its ground, according to analysts.
“Iran’s perception is that the U.S. and its allies are waging economic warfare on the Islamic Republic and that the regime is at risk ̶ their ability to export oil has always been a red line for them,” said Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But “there are all kinds of reasons why Tehran would probably not close the strait as long as they have the ability to export some oil.”
“They also import almost all their products through the ... Gulf, so they would really be a self-inflicted wound on them if they were to do this,” Eisenstadt said.
“A more likely possibility is that Iran might engage in harassment of U.S. forces, maybe a covert harassment campaign,” he told a conference hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington on Tuesday.
The killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist, which Tehran blamed on the United States and Israel, has added to an already heated diplomatic battle over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions ̶ which it insists are for non-military purposes.
Iran’s apparent openness to resuming talks with the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, also indicates it does not intend to shut down the strategic trading route, according to Eisenstadt.
The talks last took place in Turkey in January 2011.
But the prospect of new Western sanctions ̶ the EU could as early as Monday impose new penalties on Iran ̶ has increasingly seen Tehran use the possible disruption of oil supplies as a bargaining chip.
Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think-tank focused on US national security, said the situation in the Gulf was a major concern.
“Closing the strait cuts both ways, their economy is very dependent on energy exports as well, as well as imports of refined energy,” said Gunzinger.
“I don’t personally take what he (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) says seriously, but you do have to take seriously their (nuclear) ambitions.
“The trend line is worrisome. Ten years from now you might not want to put two aircraft-carriers right in the ... Gulf.”
The threat is just one tool in Iran’s box to deter a U.S. missile strike on its nuclear facilities, according to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer.
“The Iranians, I think, very deliberately use the specter of closing the Strait of Hormuz as a codename for something much bigger,” said Riedel, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“They’re talking about all the things they could do on the southern littoral of the Gulf, from missile strikes into Abu Dhabi, into refining centers,” or supporting terror groups that could hit Thailand, Lebanon or the United States, Riedel said, noting that U.S. efforts in Afghanistan could also suffer.
“They don’t have to close the Strait of Hormuz to make sure that the price of gasoline in the U.S. goes through the roof,” Riedel said.
“The Iranians are superbly placed to make the war in Afghanistan, which is already difficult, impossible.
“If there is a second country providing sanctuary and safe heaven for the insurgency, the chances of success on the timeline the administration has laid out is virtually nil,” Riedel said.
“They can turn out the light literally on half of Afghanistan whenever they want to,” he added.