West displays Gulf military power to defiant Iran

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — 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.

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.”

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.

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.

Four anti-mine vessels are based out of Bahrain, which is also the base for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Britain also has two frigates — including HMS Argyll — three support ships, a survey vessel and one hunter-killer nuclear submarine in the region, the ministry said.

Last year, the U.K. created a Response Force Task Group — drawn from a pool of warships and marines — that can be deployed at short notice.

In Paris, French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the French warship, which specializes in countering submarine attacks, has since separated from the British and American vessels, but remains on a “presence mission” in the Gulf.

France doesn’t have plans to deploy more forces to the zone, said Burkhard, noting that France has a small base in the United Arab Emirates, which currently houses six Rafale warplanes and about 650 troops, including an infantry battalion.

The United States and allies already have warned they would take swift action against any Iranian moves to choke off the 30-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz. The foreign minister from the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar — which has close ties with the West and Iran — called the waterway an international corridor that “belongs to the world.”

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