by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Jan 18, 2012
The United States is "fully prepared" for any confrontation with Iran over the strategic Strait of Hormuz, but hopes a dispute would be resolved peacefully, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.
"We obviously always continue to make preparations to be prepared for any contingency, but we are not making any special steps... because we're fully prepared to deal with that situation now," Panetta told reporters.
Tehran threatened to close the strait -- a chokepoint for one-fifth of the world's traded oil -- late last month, in the event of a military strike or severe tightening of international sanctions over its disputed nuclear program.
Washington is beefing up its naval presence in waters just outside the Gulf in response to the threats.
"We have always maintained a very strong presence in that region. We have a Navy fleet located there," Panetta said.
"We have a military presence in that region... to make very clear that we were going to do everything possible to help secure the peace in that part of the world."
The defense chief said Washington has been clear on its effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and from closing the Strait of Hormuz.
"Our goal has always been to make very clear that we would hope that any differences that we have, any concerns we have can be peacefully resolved and done through international laws and international rules," he said.
"We abide by those international laws and international rules. We would hope that Iran would do the same."
He declined to comment on a report which said Washington had sent a letter to Iran regarding its threatened closure of the waterway, but said "we have channels in which we deal with the Iranians, and we continue to use those channels."
On Friday, the New York Times, citing unnamed US officials, reported that Washington had used a secret channel to warn Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that closing the narrow strategic waterway would cross a "red line" and provoke a response.
Panetta said the postponement of joint military exercises with Israel came at the request of his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.
"Minister Barak approached me and indicated that they were interested in postponing the exercise," he said.
"We looked at it and determined that in order to be able to plan better and to do this so that we would be able to conduct that exercise that it would be better to postpone."
Israeli officials said Monday the postponement was because of regional tensions and instability, and that the drill will probably take place in the second half of 2012.
The joint maneuver was to have been the biggest yet between the two allies and was seen as an opportunity to display their joint military strength at a time of growing concern about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
But it was to come at a time of rising tensions over Iran's nuclear program, which Israel, Washington and much of the international community believe masks a weapons drive.
Iran warns gulf countries on oil exports
The specific target: Saudi Arabia, whose oil minister recently said the kingdom was willing to help make up petroleum shortfalls if international sanctions that cut off Iran's oil exports aren't only imposed but actually enforced.
"If they (Saudi Arabia and gulf states) give the green light to replacing Iran's oil, these countries would be the main culprits for whatever happens in the region " including the Strait of Hormuz," Iran's OPEC Gov. Mohammad Ali Khatibi said.
"Our Arab neighbor countries should not cooperate with these adventurers."
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said any such action by Riyadh wouldn't be considered "friendly" to Iran and suggested Saudi Arabia rethink its decision.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are traditional rivals and comments from both are pointedly related to representatives from the 27-member EU meeting this month over implementing new sanctions, including a banning of oil imports from the Islamic regime, against Tehran.
About 20 percent of Iran's oil exports go to Europe, about the same amount as that exported to China.
Although China opposes new sanctions on Iran, Tehran obviously hasn't missed China's demands of a price discount from Iran or a visit Saturday to Saudi Arabia by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who pronounced that China and Saudi Arabia should expand cooperation in the petroleum and natural gas sectors.
The new sanctions contemplated by the European Union would be a body blow to the Iran regime, which depends on oil exports for as much as 80 percent of its foreign exchange earnings.
The Iranian economy is already is turmoil. The United States passed sanctions that bar financial institutions that do business with Iran's Central Bank from doing business with U.S. financial institutions. They aren't scheduled to take effect for months yet -- and the law has waiver provisions -- but in effect it would prevent Iran from receiving payments for its exports.
Reports from Iran indicate that amid the tensions, the country's currency is nearly in free fall and the cost of commodities climbing.
Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions are imposed against it certainly haven't calmed the waters. The strait is the main transit route for the Persian Gulf's seaborne exports -- about one-third of the world's seaborne petroleum shipments pass through it.
In a move to give Europe pause on sanctions, Iran has reminded the EU of its members' fragile economies.
"Applying the scenario of sanctions on Iran's oil exports to the EU members would be economic suicide for member countries," Khatibi said.
Whether such nudges have an impact is questionable. A report from the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency suggesting that Tehran is indeed working toward producing a nuclear weapon appears to have stiffened resolve to keep it from doing so.
"Our sanctions are part of trying to get Iran to change course and to enter negotiations (on its nuclear program) and we should not be deterred from implanting those," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. "We will continue to intensify our own sanctions and those of the European Union."
Iran's nuclear intentions have been questioned for years. While the West has suspected Tehran is on a path to weapons development, Iran has insisted its nuclear fuel enrichment is for peaceful purposes, such as energy. Disclosure by Iranian dissidents of secret facilities in 2002 heightened suspicions that Tehran was being less than honest. Talks between Iran and the West sputtered along before breaking down about a year ago.
Since then a new facility has been constructed and fuel enrichment is progressing.
Both the United States and Israel, which Iran has threatened to wipe off the map, have said a military option isn't off the table in dealing with Tehran's suspected nuclear weapon ambitions, although Washington in pressuring Tel Aviv to refrain from such a move at present.
Both are also accused by Tehran of engaging in a clandestine war against it, including the introduction of a computer virus which disrupted its nuclear facilities and efforts and the assassination of its nuclear scientists and workers.
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Russia wary of Japan FM's Kuril visit
Nemuro, Japan (UPI) Jan 17, 2012
An "inspection" of the Kuril Islands by Japan's foreign minister over the weekend brought a pensive reaction from Russia, which claims the disputed lands. Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba viewed the islands from a Japanese coast guard ship Saturday, the Kyodo News Agency reported. Gemba paid his first visit as foreign minister to what Tokyo calls the Northern Territories ... read more
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