WASHINGTON - The US Fifth Fleet warned Wednesday, December 28, that it would not allow any disruption of traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, after an Iranian threat to stop ships moving through the world's most important oil route.
"Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations, the Bahrain-based fleet said in an e-mail cited by Reuters.
Any disruption will not be tolerated."
Iran, at loggerheads with the West over its nuclear program, said on Tuesday it would stop the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf if sanctions were imposed on its crude exports.
"Closing the Strait of Hormuz for Iran's armed forces is really easy ... or as Iranians say, it will be easier than drinking a glass of water," Iran's navy chief Habibollah Sayyari told Iran's English-language Press TV on Wednesday.
"But right now, we don't need to shut it ...," said Sayyari, who is leading 10 days of exercises in the Strait.
Analysts say that Iran could potentially cause havoc in the Strait of Hormuz, a strip of water separating Oman and Iran, which connects the biggest Gulf oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.
At its narrowest point, the strait is 21 miles across.
But Iran's navy would be no match for the firepower of the Fifth Fleet which consists of 20-plus ships supported by combat aircraft, with 15,000 people afloat and another 1,000 ashore.
A spokesperson for the Fifth Fleet said in response to queries from Reuters that, it "maintains a robust presence in the region to deter or counter destabilizing activities," without providing further details.
Tension has increased between Iran and the West after EU foreign ministers decided three weeks ago to tighten sanctions on the world's No. 5 crude exporter, but left open the idea of an embargo on Iranian oil.
The West accuses Iran of seeking a nuclear bomb; Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Officials and analysts see the Iranian threat as nothing but a mere rhetoric to stave off Western pressures.
"Iranian politicians regularly use this type of rhetoric to distract attention from the real issue, which is the nature of their nuclear program," a British Foreign Office spokesman said.
An Iranian analyst said the leadership could not reach a compromise with the West over its nuclear activities as it "would harm its prestige among its core supporters."
As a result, he said, "Iranian officials are showing their teeth to prevent a military strike."
But the analyst added that closing the Strait of Hormuz would harm Iran's economy, undermining the Iranian leadership ahead of a parliamentary election in March.
Iran's international isolation over its defiant nuclear stance is hurting the country's oil-dependent economy, but Iranian officials have shown no sign of willingness to compromise.
Iran dismisses the impact of sanctions, saying trade and other measures imposed since the 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the US-backed shah have made the country stronger.
During a public speech in Iran's western province of Ilam on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad implied Tehran had no intention of changing course.
"We will not yield to pressure to abandon our rights ... The Iranian nation will not withdraw from its right (to nuclear technology) even one iota because of the pressures," said Ahmadinejad, whose firm nuclear stance has stoked many ordinary Iranians' sense of national dignity.
Some Iranian oil officials have admitted that foreign sanctions were hurting the key energy sector that was in desperate need of foreign investment.Though four rounds of the UN sanctions do not forbid the purchase of Iranian oil, many international oil firms and trading companies have stopped trading with Iran.