WASHINGTON - U.S. warships will continue to sail in the Gulf despite an Iranian warning to stay away, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
Pentagon press secretary George Little issued a written statement Tuesday saying that the U.S. Navy presence in the Gulf is in compliance with international law. And he said it is intended to maintain what he called a "constant state of high vigilance" in order to ensure the flow of sea commerce.
Earlier Tuesday, Iran's army chief warned an American aircraft carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf in Tehran's latest tough rhetoric over the strategic waterway, part of a feud with the United States over new sanctions that has sparked a jump in oil prices.
"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," army chief Ataollah Salehi told state news agency IRNA.
The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and another vessel exited the Gulf through the Hormuz Strait a week ago, after a visit to Dubai's Jebel Ali port, according to the U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based 5th Fleet.
The maneuver came amid Iran's 10-day naval exercise near the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, which ended Monday. Iranian officials have said the drill aimed to show that Iran could close the vital oil passage, as it has threatened to do if the United States enacts strong new sanctions over Iran's nuclear program.
The strait, leading into the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea, is the only possible route for tankers transporting crude from the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf to markets. A sixth of the world's oil exports passes through it every day.
Salehi's warning for the U.S. aircraft carrier not to come back seemed aimed at further depicting the strait and the Gulf as under Iran's domination, though there was little way to enforce his warning without military action. The strait is divided between Iran and Oman's territorial waters, and international law requires them to allow free passage through it.
He said Iran's enemies have understood the message of the naval exercises, saying, "We have no plan to begin any irrational act but we are ready against any threat."
Iran's saber-rattling over the strait and the Gulf has come in response to U.S. preparations to impose tough new sanctions that would ban dealings with Iran's Central Bank. That would deeply hurt Iran's oil exports since most countries and companies use the bank to conduct purchases of Iranian crude. Iran relies on oil revenues for around 80 percent of its budget, meaning a cut-off would be devastating to its already weakening economy.
President Barack Obama has signed the sanctions into law but has not yet enacted them. The sanctions would be the strongest yet by the U.S., aimed at forcing Tehran to back of its nuclear program, which many in the West say is intended to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran denies the claim, saying its program is peaceful.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday that is country wants Europe to agree on similar sanctions against Iran by Jan. 30 to show its determination to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. He told the French television station iTELE that there is "no doubt" that Iran is continuing with plans to build a bomb.
Iran's naval maneuvers took place over a 1,250-mile stretch of water beyond the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, as well as parts of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, according to Iranian officials.
A leading Iranian lawmaker said Sunday the maneuvers served as practice for closing the strait if the West enacts sanctions blocking Iranian oil sales. Top Iranian officials made the same threat last week.