Iran Begins Military Training, Warns of Cutting Oil Exports to Europe - USATODAY.com
Iran began ground military exercises Saturday and defiantly warned that it could cut off oil exports to “hostile” European nations as tensions rise over suggestions that military strikes are an increasing possibility if sanctions fail to rein in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Tehran has stepped up its rhetoric as international pressure mounts over allegations that it is seeking to develop atomic weapons, a charge it denies.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued stern warnings against any possible U.S. or Israeli attacks against Tehran’s nuclear facilities. Western forces also have boosted their naval presence in the Gulf led by the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
The new military maneuvers came weeks after Iran rolled out its troops and arsenals in an unprecedented display of military readiness, with 10 days of naval maneuvers that included the first threats to block Gulf oil tankers in early January. Ground forces also were sent on winter war games — against what a Tehran military spokesman called a “hypothetical enemy” — with U.S. forces just over the border in Afghanistan.
Plans for new Iranian naval games in the Persian Gulf off the country’s southern coast have been in the works for weeks.
Iranian state media reported the ground maneuvers of the elite Revolutionary Guard started Saturday near Jiroft, 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran. No more details were available, but it appeared that they were small-scale exercises and not linked to the planned major naval maneuvers near the Strait of Hormuz, the route for one-fifth of the world’s crude oil.
Iranian officials and lawmakers repeatedly have threatened to close the strait, which funnels down to a waterway no wider than 30 miles (50 kilometers) at the mouth of the Gulf, in retaliation for sanctions that affect Iran’s oil exports. But they have as yet made no attempts to disrupt shipping through the waterway, and the U.S. and other Western powers have warned they would respond swiftly to any attempts at a blockade.
Washington and its allies fear Iran could use its uranium enrichment labs — which make nuclear fuel — to eventually produce weapons-grade material. Tehran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
So far, the West is relying primarily on the threat of economic sanctions to pressure Iran over its nuclear program.
Tehran has claimed that the most recent move — EU sanctions approved on Jan. 23, which include an oil embargo and the freezing of central bank assets — will be ineffective, while members of Iran’s parliament say they have drafted a bill which would cut off the flow to Europe early, before it can find alternative suppliers.
Iran’s Oil Minister Rostam Qassemi also said Saturday the Islamic Republic would “definitely” cut off oil to “hostile” European countries, without specifying which ones they were.
However, he said Iran is moving toward reducing reliance on oil revenues, a hint that Tehran is preparing for the worst. Oil sales account for about 80 percent of Iran’s foreign revenues.