- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Iran’s stepped-up bellicosity, including a warning Tuesday that a U.S. aircraft carrier should not return to the Persian Gulf, is a reaction to increased talk in the United States and Israel of a strike on its nuclear sites, and of the West adding economic sanctions on its already struggling economy, analysts say.

The Pentagon responded to Iran’s tough talk by vowing that its warships are in the Gulf to stay and will take steps to ensure the commercial oil shipping continues to sail through the Strait of Hormuz. More than one-sixth of the world’s crude oil moves through the strategic sea lane at the mouth of the Gulf.

“This may very well be Iranian rhetoric, but we can’t treat it as simple rhetoric,” a senior U.S. official told The Washington Times.

“We have to take threats from the Iranians seriously, even if we don’t think they’ll necessarily follow through on them. The United States wouldn’t tolerate the closure of the Strait of Hormuz.”

Iran just completed a 10-day naval exercise that it said was designed to show it has the military capability to close Hormuz. Iran’s army chief, Gen. Ataollah Salehi, upped the ante when he said the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, which left the Gulf last week, must not return.

“I advise, recommend and warn [the U.S.] over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf, because we are not in the habit of warning more than once,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted Gen. Salehi as saying.

Aircraft carriers, studded with F-18 strike jets, typically move in and out of the Gulf during six-month deployments, spending some time in the Arabian Sea to support U.S. forces in the Afghanistan War.

Tehran is feeling pressure from Western sanctions as well as harsh rhetoric of American politicians in a presidential election year, including from candidates who vow to bomb the country’s far-flung nuclear facilities to keep Iran from assembling atomic weapons.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst, noted that congressional Republicans and Democrats approved sanctions on Iran that are even tougher than the Obama administration sought.

“If you are an Iranian intelligence analyst monitoring what the United States is saying, across the board there appears to be widespread support from the top of the political leadership on both sides for pursuing military action against Iran if there is a perceived movement toward developing nuclear weapons,” Mr. Johnson said.

Iran’s warning, he said, “accompanies the increased amount of rhetoric out of the United States, and they see the global effort to impose sanctions on them. I think it’s a natural reaction.”

Mr. Johnson said Iran would actively move to close the strait only in response to what it might see as an act of war by the West.

Iran is not going to take any initiative unless they are backed into a corner,” he said.

“And being backed into a corner means if oil sanctions are fully put in place. If they can really no longer export and collect revenues from their oil, then under those circumstances, yes, I can see making an effort to block the Strait of Hormuz.”

He added that Iran would not be able to close the strait permanently.

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