REPORTING FROM TEHRAN -- Iran’s top naval commander told Iran's English language Press TV on Wednesday that closing the Persian Gulf to oil tanker traffic would be "easier than drinking a glass of water" but added that Iran would not do so for now.
"Closing the Strait of Hormuz for Iran's armed forces is really easy ... or, as Iranians say, it will be easier than drinking a glass of water," said Habibollah Sayyari. "But right now, we don't need to shut it as we have the Sea of Oman under control, and we can control the transit."
In response, the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet's spokeswoman warned that any disruption “will not be tolerated,” the Associated Press reported. The spokeswoman, Lt. Rebecca Rebarich, said the U.S. Navy is “always ready to counter malevolent actions to ensure freedom of navigation.”
Sayyari's statement followed by a day a similar threat from Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi to close the gulf to tanker traffic, potentially disrupting the flow of Middle East oil to world markets, if Iran faces any fresh sanctions. However, there were no immediate signs that their words were a prelude to any military action or any more than verbal jousting with Iran's international critics.
Iran is facing international sanctions imposed in response to its pursuit of a nuclear program, which it says has peaceful designs but which the West fears will lead to the creation of atomic weapons.
“What does the West expect us to do when we are threatened and attacked?” said Ali Akbar Javanfekr, a media advisor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Should we just throw our hands up and give in? Mr. Rahimi's reaction was a defensive reaction and we are right to do so."
Observers said the Iranian comments suggested that the Islamic Republic was feeling the effect of the international sanctions. Some suggested that further punishment could create a backlash.
“The reaction of Mr. Rahimi shows clearly the sanctions so far have been painful and pressure is increasing," said an Iranian reformer and analyst who did not want to be quoted by name for security reasons. "And it also indicates that if Iran cannot sell its oil then nobody in the Persian Gulf should do so, and it is a serious reaction."
But an oil expert, who also did not want to identified, said : "It is suicide if Iran seals off the Strait of Hormuz and I think it will never be realized.”
Nader Karimi Joni, economic and political analyst, said : “What Rahimi as vice president said is not a big deal or new. First of all, the commander of the Iranian naval force said that Iran does not intend to do it for the time being. Secondly, IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] commanders on other occasions in the past have said similar things.
"It is not serious," Joni said of the threat, "and it will not be in the near future.”
Reza Zandi, an oil industry expert and columnist for the reformist Sharq daily, added: “The impact of Mr. Rahimi's remarks was only one U.S. dollar in increased oil price per barrel, nothing more.
"I do remember Mr. Rostam Qasemi, the oil minister, in Vienna said that Iran will not seal off the Hormuz Strait and the Iranian commander of navy said that sealing off the strait is a decision that must be made by top officials," Zandi said. "So it means that Iran is only responding to a threat, nothing more.
"Practically," Zandi added, "neither complete oil sanctions on Iran nor the complete sealing off the strait are feasible.”
Photo: Members of the Iranian navy take positions during a drill in the Sea of Oman on Wednesday. Iran's navy chief warned during the day that his country could easily close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Credit: Ali Mohammadi / Associated Press / IIPA