A showdown between Iran and the United States over Tehran's threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers worsened Thursday with warships from each side giving weight to an increasingly bellicose exchange of words.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards rejected a warning that the US military would "not tolerate" such a closure, saying they would act decisively "to protect our vital interests."
The tough language came as Iran's navy said a US aircraft carrier entered a zone where its ships and aircraft were in the middle of 10 days of wargames 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.
Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned this week that "not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz" if the West followed through with planned additional sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme.
A US Defence Department spokesman replied with a declaration Wednesday that "interference with the transit... of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated."
But Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, told Fars news agency Thursday that "our response to threats is threats."
"We have no doubt about our being able to carry out defensive strategies to protect our vital interests -- we will act more decisively than ever," he was quoted as saying.
"The Americans are not qualified to give us permission" to carry out military strategy, he said.
Iran's navy chief, Admiral Habibollah Sayari, said the US 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 aircraft carrier went "inside the manoeuvre 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 manoeuvres."
The US aircraft carrier was believed to the USS John C. Stennis, one of the American navy's biggest warships.
US officials said Wednesday that the ship and its accompanying carrier strike group was moving through the Strait of Hormuz.
The United States maintains a navy presence in the Gulf in large part to ensure oil traffic there is unhindered.
Iran, which is already subject to several rounds of sanctions over its nuclear programme, has repeatedly said it could target the Strait of Hormuz if attacked or its economy is strangled.
Such a move could cause havoc on world oil markets, disrupting the fragile global economy.
Its navy manoeuvres included the laying of mines and the use of aerial drones, according to Iranian media. Missiles and torpedoes were to be test fired in coming days.
Analysts and oil market traders are watching the developing situation in and around the Strait of Hormuz carefully, fearing a spark could ignite open confrontation between the longtime 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.
by Marc Burleigh
(c) 2011 AFP
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