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Strait talking: Iran gets tough as US fleet looks on

In the stand-off over the crucial oil lane in the Persian Gulf, Iran’s navy drill is to culminate with the launch of long-range missiles. The US says its warships, which crossed the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday, are heading to the Arabian Sea.

Iran’s long-range missile systems, including the Shabab-3, cover a distance of over 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) and thus could reach Israel and US bases in the Middle East. According to the Iranian news agency Fars, the missiles will be launched on Saturday, being the key exercise of the Iranian navy maneuvers in the international waters of the Persian Gulf.“The firing of missiles is the final part of the navy drill,” Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi, deputy commander of the Iranian navy, told Fars. “The final phase of the drill is to prepare the navy for confronting the enemy in war situations.” In the past week, Tehran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman, if Washington imposes sanctions on Tehran’s oil exports. The US said this would not be tolerated. On Thursday, a group of the American Fifth Fleet’s warships crossed the strait heading from its military base in Bahrain to the Arabian Sea.

The Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, is a major oil shipping gateway used by the Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE), as well as Iraq and Iran, to enter the Indian Ocean. Over a third of the world’s oil exports go through the strategic strait, which is controlled by Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

The US war group, official data says, included the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay, along with several torpedo destroyers, assault landing ships, trawlers and patrol boats. This was but a “routine transit” for the group, which is to provide air support to the allied forces in Afghanistan, said Lt. Rebecca Rebarich, the spokesperson for the US Fifth Fleet.The American warships did not appear to meet any obstacles while crossing the Strait of Hormuz, although Iran maintains the US is no position to prevent it from blocking the strait when Iran deems it necessary.“Right now, we don't need to shut it as we have the Sea of Oman under control and we can control the transit,” said Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, who is leading the 10 days of war games in the strait, the Tehran Times newspaper quotes him as saying.Sayyari, who previously said that blocking Hormuz would be “easier than drinking a glass of water,” promised Iran would “use threat against threat” if the US persists with a confrontation. Washington is concerned Iran is pursuing aims to build nuclear weapons. The stand-off between the two countries has skyrocketed after the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, published a new report on Iran’s nuke activities in November. Though the report was criticized for failing to provide firm evidence of Tehran’s military ambitions, the US and Israel urged the international community to impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran and doubled talk of a possible military strike.

'Persisting with the course would isolate Iran'

Stephen Schork, the editor of the energy trading newsletter The Schork Report, argues that Iran is bluffing as it “simply cannot afford not to sell its oil to the world market.” “If Iran cannot get its oil to the world market, it cannot get petrodollars,” he told RT. Moreover, Schork adds that Iran lacks refining capacity. “If Iran continues on this path, they will isolate themselves, they will not have access to foreign capital and they will not have access to enough refined product.” He asks what Iran is trying to get as a reward for this possible move. “Apparently they want to build a nuclear weapon. The reward of a nuclear program does not justify the immense risk the leaders in Iran are playing out right now,” he concludes.

Foreign affairs analyst Richard J. Heydarian says that Iran has to play the Hormuz card as it cannot afford to lose 70 per cent of the nation’s revenues if Washington sanctions its oil sector. “Iran knows that closing the Hormuz Strait would send the shockwaves across the global economy, which is very fragile right now,” Heydarian told RT. “But in my opinion, it is just a rhetorical gesture as Iran needs to draw red lines. It doesn’t mean that Iran is really willing to engage in that kind of military situation. Today’s a reminiscent of the so-called ‘Tanker wars’ of the 1980s [between Iraq and Iran].”

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