A showdown between Iran and the US over Tehran’s threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers worsened on 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.”
US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Iran had exhibited “irrational behavior” by threatening to close the strait.
“One can only guess that the international sanctions are beginning to feel the pinch and that the ratcheting up of pressure, particularly on their oil sector, is pinching in a way that is causing them to lash out,” she said.
The tough language came as two US warships entered a zone where the Iranian navy’s ships and aircraft were in the middle of 10 days of war games designed as a show of military might, but a US Navy spokeswoman said later that the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay had transited without incident on Tuesday, in pre-planned, routine operation.
“Our interaction with the regular Iranian Navy continues to be within the standards of maritime practice, well-known, routine and professional,” Fifth Fleet spokeswoman Lieutenant Rebecca Rebarich said on Thursday.
The transit area was in waters 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 follows through with planned additional sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
An Iranian Navy commander, Admiral Habibollah Sayari, backed that up by saying it would be “really easy” to close the strait.
A US Department of Defense spokesman riposted on Wednesday that “interference with the transit ... of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated.”
However, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, told Fars news agency on 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 said.
“The Americans are not qualified to give us permission” to carry out military strategy, he added.
Sayari said the US aircraft carrier was monitored by Iranian forces as it passed from the Strait of Hormuz to the Gulf of Oman, state television reported.
It broadcast footage of an aircraft carrier being shadowed by an Iranian plane.
An Iranian Navy spokesman, Commodore Mahmoud Mousavi, told IRNA news agency that the US carrier went “inside the maneuver zone” where Iranian ships were conducting their exercises.
He said the navy was “prepared, in accordance with international law, to confront offenders who do not respect our security perimeters during the maneuvers.”