The Islamic Republic of Iran rattled its saber at the United States last week during an Iranian naval warfare exercise in the Persian Gulf. A United States aircraft carrier, named as the USS John C. Stennis by various news outlets, left the Gulf by way of the strategic Straight of Hormuz during the war games, a move which precipitated a military threat by the Iranian leadership.
“Iran will not repeat its warning … the enemy’s carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf….we are not in the habit of warning more than once,” stated Iranian military commander Ataollah Salehi in a statement.
The United States has indicated that it intends to continue patrolling international waters in the Gulf. American officials also trivialized Salehi’s statement, saying that such warnings only serve to emphasize the degree to which American sanctions targeting financial institutions that do business with Iran’s Central Bank have rattled the regime in Tehran.
”We are not seeking a confrontation, but we will make sure that the role we play in ensuring global freedom of navigation continues,” stated State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
The United States maintains a carrier strike group centered around the John C. Stennis in Bahrain, which is located in the Persian Gulf just off of the coast of Saudi Arabia.
Western politicians have been pushing for harder sanctions against Tehran of late, due to its continuing nuclear program, which many suspect is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. Iran, however, claims that its nuclear aspirations are peaceful and do not violate the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
While China and Russia would provide an economic lifeline to Iran should the West impose sanctions against the country’s petrochemical industry, Tehran has shown itself to be extremely worried. This anxiety has manifested itself in a recent threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for any moves against Iran’s oil exports.
The Strait, which joins the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, is only 34 miles wide at its narrowest point and carries 35% of all seaborne oil shipments, which amounts to one fifth of all oil traded worldwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
While China has expressed its desire to continue buying oil from the Iranians, it has not refrained from using Iran’s growing economic isolation as a bargaining chip to obtain lower fuel prices.
According to media reports from within the country, citizens worried over American and European sanctions have made runs on banks and money changers to change their Iranian Rials into harder currencies, such as the Dollar. In response, Iran’s Central Bank moved swiftly to prop up the faltering currency, leading it to strengthen by 20% on Wednesday.
The current round of sanctions, which President Obama has indicated that he may soften to a degree, may hamper Iranian oil sales abroad, according to Reuters.
Iran recently put a proposal for a new round of multi-lateral negotiations regarding its nuclear program on the table, but added several caveats, including the easing of sanctions, a move interpreted by some western observers to indicate that the ruling regime is feeling pressured by western economic warfare.
The Iranian threats come on the heels of a massive national program aimed at self-sufficiency in the realm of weapons. Many new military offensive and defensive systems have been developed by Iranian engineers, seeking to reduce reliance on outside military technology.
New missiles, ships and aircraft have been coming off the native Persian assembly lines in a military buildup that has neighboring nations worried.
Media reports describing Saudi Arabia’s interest in medium-sized American warships began surfacing in early 2010, highlighting the fears of the Saudi Royal family, Persian Iran’s traditional rival. This interest, UPI reported, is “a key element in Riyadh’s program known as Saudi Naval Expansion Program II, worth as much as $23 billion over 10 years, which saw the light of day after the 1990-91 Gulf War triggered by Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait.”
Any ships purchased from the United States by Saudi Arabia would most likely be intended for use in shallow waters such as those in the Persian Gulf.
Jonathan Rue, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington DC, wrote in Foreign Affairs that the Iranian navy now has the “operational reach to visit countries that do not share a border with Iran.”
This reach, Rue contended, allows for visits that “help foster good political relations” and “provide a foundation for military-to-military ties that can also yield operational benefits.”
This increased range could force American military strategists to place forces in bodies of water, such as the Red Sea, previously thought to be calm, in an effort to counter the Iranians’ expanding reach.
“In many ways,” Rue explained, “the origins of Iran’s naval buildup stem from embargoes that the U.S. slapped on Tehran during its war with Iraq, more than two decades ago. Since then, Tehran has sought what it calls ‘self-sufficiency.’”
“In 2010, the IRIN put its first domestically manufactured traditional surface combatant, the Mowj class destroyer, to sea. Tehran has also built four Combattante II class guided missile patrol boats. In August 2010, it expanded the Peykaap/Tir class line, a fast-attack craft capable of carrying anti-ship cruise missiles and hitting a cruising speed of 55 knots. The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence says that these programs ‘demonstrate Iran’s ability to produce mid- to large-size ships” and “will likely be followed by others.’”
In an act of defiance towards American naval hegemony in the Gulf, Iranian naval commander Habibollah Sayyari stated in September that “like the arrogant powers that are present near our marine borders, we will also have a powerful presence close to the American marine borders.”
However, security journalist and blogger Michael Peck noted, “the Iranian Navy isn’t about to shell Cape Cod.”
Iranian missile boats do not have the range to reach the United States and return, he explained. However, Iranian submarines are within range of vital American interests and allies, including Saudia Arabia and Israel, worrying many in the region.
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