REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- A U.S. aircraft carrier sailed through the Strait of Hormuz on Sunday, the first transit since Iran warned American ships this year against using the strategic waterway.
The Navy’s 5th Fleet said in a statement that the carrier Abraham Lincoln passed through the narrow waterway into the Persian Gulf “without incident.”
The ship was accompanied by British and French naval vessels, a move that officials said was intended to show international support for keeping open the strait, a choke point through which 20% of the world’s oil passes.
Tensions with Iran have intensified in recent months as the U.S. and its allies have imposed new sanctions aimed at forcing Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. Iran has responded by conducting naval maneuvers and threatening to close the strait.
When the carrier John C. Stennis departed the gulf in late December, the head of Iran’s army warned the ship not to return, and other Iranian officers advised all U.S. Navy vessels to stay out of the Persian Gulf, where they have patrolled for decades. The headquarters of the 5th Fleet is in the gulf kingdom of Bahrain.
The U.S. and its allies are trying to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear program, suspecting that the Islamic Republic is trying to develop weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
The Lincoln and its strike group of other Navy ships arrived in the Arabian Sea this month, joining the Carl Vinson, another U.S. carrier now in the north Arabian Sea. Pentagon officials are planning to keep two carriers and their battle groups assigned to the 5th Fleet for an indefinite period, giving commanders major naval and air assets.
Fighters from the Vinson have been conducting air operations over Afghanistan, leaving the Lincoln free to patrol in the Persian Gulf in case of a crisis with Iran.
Navy officials say Iran might be able to temporarily block tanker traffic through the strait using mines and anti-ship missiles and other weapons, but U.S. commanders say they could probably reopen the waterway within a week.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: In this Nov. 12 photo provided by the U.S. Navy, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier John C. Stennis transits the Straits of Hormuz. Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Kenneth Abbate / U.S. Navy