The United States has moved new forces into the Gulf to keep strategic waterways open and strike deep within Iran in the event of a regional military escalation, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
The Times cited senior officials as saying the quiet build-up was aimed at reassuring Israel that Washington is serious about addressing Iran’s nuclear program and keeping the Straits of Hormuz -- a key oil choke point -- open.
“The message to Iran is, ‘Don’t even think about it,’ “it quoted a senior Defense Department official as saying.
“Don’t even think about closing the strait. We’ll clear the mines. Don’t even think about sending your fast boats out to harass our vessels or commercial shipping. We’ll put them on the bottom of the Gulf.”
The Navy has doubled the number of minesweepers in the region, to eight vessels, and stealthy F-22s and older F-15C warplanes have been deployed to regional bases to reinforce existing carrier strike groups, the Times said.
U.S. President Barack Obama has sought to roll back Iran’s nuclear program though diplomatic means -- ramping up sanctions to unprecedented levels in recent months -- while not ruling out a military strike.
Western nations and Israel have accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian uranium enrichment program, charges adamantly denied by Tehran.
Iran and the P5+1 group comprising the five U.N. Security Council permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) plus Germany plan to hold an experts-level meeting in Istanbul to discuss the dispute.
The talks were to take place between technical experts after three previous rounds earlier this year, at a more senior political level, failed to bridge the vast gap dividing the two sides.
Iran has threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the oil-rich Gulf if its nuclear program is targeted by air strikes.
That threat, repeated since December, helped propel oil prices to a four-year high of $128 for a barrel of Brent North Sea reference crude in early March.
Long-range missile launch
On Tuesday Iranian media reported that Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards test fired several ballistic missiles, including a long-range variety capable of hitting U.S. bases in the region as well as Israel,.
The official IRNA news agency said the surface-to-surface missiles successfully hit their targets, while semi-official Fars said the salvos included the so-called Shahab-3 missile. It quoted a leading officer as saying the missiles travelled distances of up to 1,300 kilometers, or 800 miles.
“So far, we have launched missiles from 300 to 1,300 kilometers in the maneuver,” said Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who heads the Guards’ aerospace division. He hinted that some missiles had an even longer range.
Iran has tested a variety of missiles in previous war games, including a Shahab-3 variant with a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles).
Israel is about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away from Iran’s western borders, while the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Iranian shores in the Persian Gulf.
On Sunday, a European Union oil embargo meant to pressure Iran over its nuclear program came into effect. The West suspects the Islamic Republic wants to build nuclear weapons, and Israel has hinted at an attack if diplomatic efforts and sanctions fail to eliminate what it sees as a direct threat.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, such as power generation and cancer treatment.
The commander quoted by Fars said Iran also plans to use both unmanned and manned bombers in the war games.
He said Iran is testing a variety of other missiles in the exercises, which Tehran says aim to assess the accuracy and effectiveness of its warheads and weapons systems.