Tehran warns U.S. to stay out of Gulf

Tough talk seen as sanctions backlash

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“But I’ve heard some of our analysts say the 5th Fleet could open it in a heartbeat. Well, maybe yes, maybe no,” he said.

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain and must sail through the Strait of Hormuz.

Added to the U.S. political rhetoric was the stark warning to Iran from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

“The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Panetta said in a Dec. 19 interview with CBS News.

“That’s a red line for us, and that’s a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it, we will deal with it. … If they proceed, and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it.”

Panetta spokesman George Little added Tuesday that the “deployment of U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf region will continue as it has for decades.”

U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups visit the Gulf on “regularly scheduled movements in accordance with our long-standing commitments to the security and stability of the region and in support of ongoing operation.” Mr. Little added.

He said the deployments are to maintain support for the U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for most of the Middle East and Central Asia.

“Our transits of the Strait of Hormuz continue to be in compliance with international law, which guarantees our vessels the right of transit passage,” he said.

James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said Iran’s threats are intended to make Europe think twice about more moves against the hard-line Islamic state.

“I think the Iranians are playing up their threats to block the Strait of Hormuz in order to deter an Israeli or U.S. preventive attack on their nuclear program, dissuade the Europeans from imposing more sanctions and push up the price of oil, their foremost export, in nervous world oil markets,” Mr. Phillips said.

But, he added, that in the end, shutting down shipping would come back to haunt Tehran.

“If the strait is closed, Iran actually would be one of the biggest losers,” he said.

“Virtually all of its exports must be shipped through the strait, but Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait have access to pipelines through which they can export oil through the Red Sea or through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea.

“Tehran would only try to close the strait as a last resort in the event that its own oil exports already were being embargoed or otherwise blocked.”

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