West Displays Gulf Military Power to Defiant Iran

Associated Press + More

TEHRAN, Iran — Military power near the strategic Strait of Hormuz could be bolstered by additional British forces, the country's defense secretary said Tuesday, as a defiant Iran shrugged off Europe's oil embargo and moved ahead with plans to hold naval exercises alongside the oil tanker shipping lanes it has threatened to block.

Tehran's bravado was in sharp contrast to the widening international pressures seeking to curb its nuclear program.

Australia became the latest country to shun Iranian oil, and the European Union's foreign policy chief traveled to Israel for talks certain to convey the West's belief that increasing economic isolation, rather than a push toward military action, is the most effective tool against Iran's leadership.

Iran also has accused Israel of masterminding a series of covert attacks such as a malicious computer virus designed to infiltrate uranium enrichment labs and targeted slayings of members of Iran's scientific community. Israel has made no direct comments on the claims, but dangled hints that clandestine operations are possible by Iran's many foes.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

The EU on Monday joined Washington in backing sanctions targeting Iran's vital oil industry, which accounts for about 80 percent of its foreign currency revenues. The vote in Brussels came a day after a Western flotilla — two British and French warships and the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln's battle group — entered the Gulf in a show of force against any Iranian attempts to disrupt the route for one-fifth of the world's oil.

Iran's commanders, meanwhile, are preparing their own message. Plans remain in place for the powerful Revolutionary Guard to send its maritime forces for maneuvers next month in the Strait, which is jointly controlled by Iran and Oman and has become the latest flashpoint for a potential military confrontation.

"Elements within the European Union, by pursuing the policies of the U.S. and adopting a hostile approach, are seeking to create tensions with the Islamic Republic of Iran," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Ali Asghar Khaji, a senior foreign ministry official, as saying. He called the EU decision "irrational."

But other Iranian officials claimed the sanctions would not work — and could even benefit OPEC giant Iran by driving up crude prices.

"The oil embargo will lead to higher prices. Europe will be the loser and Iran will earn more because of high prices," Iran's oil ministry spokesman, Alireza Nikzad Rahbar, told state TV.

Iran also summoned the Danish ambassador in Tehran over the EU's oil embargo. Denmark currently holds the EU presidency.

In London, Britain's Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said his country was ready to strengthen its military presence in the Gulf if needed.

The U.S.-led convoy of warships now in the Gulf — which included Britain's HMS Argyll frigate and France's frigate La Motte Picquet — sent "a clear signal about the resolve of the international community to defend the right of free passage through international waters," Hammond told reporters.

"We also maintain mine-counter measures vessels in the Gulf, which are an important part of the overall allied presence there, and of course the U.K. has a contingent capability to reinforce that presence should at any time it be considered necessary to do so," he added, accusing Iran of working "flat out" to produce a nuclear weapon.

[See pictures of Iran participating in War Games.]

Iran insists its atomic program is only aimed at producing energy and research, but has repeatedly refused to consider giving up its ability to enrich uranium. The U.S. and allies fear it could use its stockpile to one day produce weapons-grade material.

Hammond declined to offer specific details on what forces are currently in the Gulf, but said it had about 1,500 Navy personnel in the region east of Suez, which includes the Middle East and Indian Ocean, and a Royal Air Force base in Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.