Iran threatens U.S. ships, alarms oil markets

Published Jan. 4, 2012

WASHINGTON — Iran escalated its war of words with the United States on Tuesday with a warning to Navy ships to stay out of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, remarks that rattled commodities markets and helped send oil prices soaring.

The latest in a series of provocative statements by Iranian leaders was delivered by the Iranian armed forces commander, Gen. Ataollah Salehi, who appeared to threaten a U.S. aircraft carrier that steamed out of Persian Gulf waters last week.

"We warn this ship, which is considered a threat to us, not to come back, and we do not repeat our words twice," Salehi said, according to the Iranian Students' News Agency.

The Obama administration brushed aside the threat, but the increasingly bellicose tone, coupled with new economic sanctions against Iran expected to take effect in the coming weeks because of its nuclear program, helped cause the price of oil to jump more than 4 percent to $103 a barrel.

The threat against U.S. ships was the latest in a series of aggressive moves by Iran, which within a week has tested new missiles, boasted of breakthroughs in nuclear technology and vowed to shut down shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for one-sixth of the world's oil supply.

U.S. officials attributed Tuesday's harsh language to Iran's growing frustration over its faltering economy, which they say is suffering under the weight of several rounds of Western sanctions adopted in the past three years.

The Iranian currency, the rial, slipped to unprecedented lows against the dollar Tuesday. Currency traders have been dumping the rial in advance of tougher sanctions, including measures signed by President Barack Obama on Saturday targeting the Central Bank of Iran. In addition, the European Union is expected to approve new sanctions at a meeting Jan. 30, including curbs on imports of Iran's main export commodity, petroleum.

"Frankly, we see these threats from Tehran as just increasing evidence that the international pressure is beginning to bite there," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday. She said Iranian officials were "trying to divert the attention of their own public from the difficulties inside Iran, including the economic difficulties as a result of the sanctions."

Iranian warnings Tuesday were directed at the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, which left the Persian Gulf with its battle group last week in advance of a planned 10-day military exercise by Iran. Salehi, the Iranian general, boasted that aircraft and drones had shadowed the warship as it left the region and that Iran was prepared to block its return. The warship is based at U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters in nearby Bahrain.

U.S. officials and military analysts dismissed the threat as a bluff. A Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Bill Speaks, said the Navy would continue to deploy its ships in the gulf "as it has for decades."