LONDON — Britain could send extra military assets to the Strait of Hormuz to deter any attempt by Iran to block Persian Gulf oil tanker traffic, the country's defense secretary said Tuesday, as Tehran accused the European Union of trying to create tension with a ban on the purchase of its oil.
Two British and French warships and the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln had entered the Gulf on Sunday to show Tehran they would not tolerate any interference with global shipping, Philip Hammond told reporters.
Iranian leaders have repeated long-standing threats to close off the Strait, which handles a fifth of the world's oil, after the EU imposed the embargo Monday as part of sanctions to pressure Tehran into resuming talks on the country's controversial nuclear program.
Iran summoned the Danish ambassador to Tehran on Tuesday over the EU's oil embargo; Denmark is currently the head of the rotating EU presidency.
"Elements within the European Union, by pursuing the policies of the U.S. and adopting a hostile approach, are seeking to create tensions with the Islamic Republic of Iran," the official IRNA news agency quoted Ali Asghar Khaji, a senior Foreign Ministry official, as saying. He called the EU decision "irrational" and "without logical justification."
Other Iranian officials argued the sanctions would not work, or could even benefit Iran.
"The oil embargo will lead to higher prices. Europe will be the loser and Iran will earn more because of high prices," Iran's oil ministry spokesman Ali Reza Nikzad Rahbar told state TV.
During talks in London on Tuesday, Australia said it would also sign up to the embargo — though acknowledged it currently has negligible oil imports from Iran.
The three warships — which included Britain's HMS Argyll frigate and France's frigate La Motte Picquet — that entered the Gulf on Sunday had sent "a clear signal about the resolve of the international community to defend the right of free passage through international waters," Hammond said.
"We also maintain mine-counter measures vessels in the Gulf, which are an important part of the overall allied presence there, and of course the U.K. has a contingent capability to reinforce that presence should at any time it be considered necessary to do so," he said.
Britain's defense ministry declined to offer specific detail on what assets and personnel are currently in the Persian Gulf, but said it had about 1,500 Navy personnel in the region east of Suez, which includes the Middle East and Indian Ocean.
Four anti-mine vessels are based out of Bahrain, while Britain also has two frigates — including HMS Argyll — three support ships, a survey vessel and one hunter-killer nuclear submarine in the region, the ministry said.
In Paris, French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the French warship, which specializes in countering submarine attacks, has since separated from the British and American warships, but remains on a "presence mission" in the Persian Gulf.
France doesn't have plans to deploy more forces to the zone, said Burkhard, noting that France has a small base in the United Arab Emirates, which currently houses six Rafale warplanes and about 650 troops, including an infantry battalion.
The United States and allies have already warned they would take swift action against any Iranian moves to choke off the 30-mile (50-kilometer) wide Strait of Hormuz.
At the center of the dispute is international concern over Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran insists is aimed at providing civilian power. The U.S. and other nations accuse Iran of attempting to build nuclear weapons, and Tehran is now under several rounds of U.N. sanctions over its failures to be forthcoming about its work.
Hammond said recently that Iran was "working flat out" to produce a nuclear weapon.
Australia's foreign minister Kevin Rudd, in London with Australian defense minister Stephen Smith for talks with British counterparts, said his country would join the EU's oil embargo.
"We in Australia will undertake precisely the same parallel actions in Australia," Rudd said. "The reason is very clear — the message needs to be delivered to the people of Iran, the wider political elites of Iran, as well as the government of Iran that their behavior is globally unacceptable."
Iran responded angrily to the new EU sanctions Monday, with two lawmakers escalating threats that their country would close the Strait of Hormuz. Lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said Iran had the right to shutter Hormuz in retaliation and that the closure was increasingly probable, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.
"In case of threat, the closure of the Strait of Hormuz is one of Iran's rights," Falahatpisheh was quoted as saying. "So far, Iran has not used this privilege."
Some commentators are declaring that Iran should cut the flow of crude even before the new measures go into effect in July, to punish Europe, while others say the embargo is a "gift" which will allow the country to diversity its economy.
"Ineffective Western sanctions are not a threat to us, but an opportunity that has brought a lot of benefits," Moslehi said at a gathering in the central city of Isfahan late Monday.
The measures, approved in Brussels by the EU's 27 foreign ministers, include an immediate embargo on new contracts for crude oil and petroleum products. Existing contracts with Iran will be allowed to run until July.
Iran's Oil Ministry said the country can find new markets.
"Iran can easily find new customers for its oil," Mohsen Qamsari, a senior ministry official, was quoted by the semiofficial Mehr news agency as saying.
Some 80 percent of Iran's foreign revenue comes from oil exports, and analysts say that any sanctions affecting its ability to export oil would hit its economy hard. With about 4 million barrels per day, Iran is the second largest producer in OPEC. It exports about 2 million barrels a day and consumes the rest domestically.
The EU has been importing about 450,000 barrels of oil per day from Iran, making up 18 percent of Iran's oil exports.
Some in Iran said the country should stop selling oil to Europe now, instead of July, to punish the bloc before it can find suppliers to replace Iranian crude oil in the midst of winter.
• Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, Jamey Keaten in Paris and Meera Selva in London contributed to this report