Iran plans new naval exercise near Strait of Hormuz

Jan. 6, 2012 at 2:26 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- Iran's saber rattling is far from over as it scheduled new naval exercises near the Strait of Hormuz, a major choke point for the world's oil tankers.

The exercise comes on the heels of 10 days of maneuvers that started last month and included the firing of cruise missiles, which could be used against commercial tankers as well as against U.S. Navy ships that operate in the Persian Gulf to ensure unhindered passage of tankers.

"Today the Islamic Republic of Iran has full domination over the region and controls all movements within it," Rear Adm. Ali Fadavi, naval commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, was quoted by the semi-official Fars news agency.

The maneuvers in February, he said, would be different from the most recent -- Velayat (Supremacy) 90 -- and would focus specifically on the narrow passageway through which about 13 tankers loaded with crude pass each day. That is about one-third of the world's sea-borne petroleum shipments.

Iran last week boasted it could close the channel at any time and warned against the United States and the European Union going forward with plans to impose new economic sanctions against it.

New U.S. sanctions, already signed into law by U.S. President Barak Obama, would bar any financial institution conducting business with Iran's Central Bank from doing business with U.S. financial institution. If fully implemented, the sanctions would be a dagger to the heart of Iran's oil trade, which accounts for as much as 80 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings and which props up social programs, such as food subsidies, within the country.

The European Union is to meet this month to devise and implement its own sanctions. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for the freezing of Iranian financial assets. Other calls within the European Union include a ban of importation of Iran crude and petroleum products.

The sanctions are the result of Iran's nuclear program. Tehran insists its nuclear fuel enrichment program is for energy purposes but many other countries -- as well as the United Nations -- suspect it is for a nuclear weapons program.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Thursday, "Iran, with divine assistance, has always been ready to counter such hostile actions and we are not concerned at all about the sanctions."

During Velayat 90, Iran boasted it chased away a foreign helicopter from its maneuver area and then warned the United States against deploying a carrier group in the gulf.

"Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy's carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill," Iranian army chief Ataollah Salehi said. "I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf.

"I advise, recommend and warn them over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once."

The carrier group that exited the Persian Gulf was led by the USS John C. Stennis, which was conducting a routine rotation. The United States, which operates its 5th Fleet from Bahrain, said Iranian threats wouldn't alter its operations and that Washington was committed to keeping the Strait of Hormuz open to commercial traffic.

The dates and scope of Iran's upcoming show of strength hasn't been disclosed but it raises the specter of a possible confrontation with U.S. Navy forces.

The maneuvers will apparently be conducted in the main by the highly politicized Revolutionary Guard, which operates many of the small attack boats in Iran's naval fleet.

Iran -- its regular navy as well as the guard units -- has about three destroyers, 19 submarines (including mini-subs) and about 200 fast-attack/patrol boats as well as mine-laying vessels.

Military experts say Iran could indeed block the Strait of Hormuz -- just 26 miles wide at its narrowest point -- initially, causing financial disruption in Europe and elsewhere but would eventually be beaten down by overwhelming U.S. firepower.

But with the world's economies in turmoil -- and dependent on imported oil -- Iran's threats and the chance of a confrontation can't be dismissed out of hand.

"It (Iran) is the single greatest destabilizing element right now with regards to global security," former CIA Director Michael Hayden told Fox News.

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