USS Lincoln is first carrier to enter Strait of Hormuz since Iran threat

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Flanked by British and French ships, the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier moved through the Strait of Hormuz without incident Sunday despite recent threats from Iran.

The U.S. Naval Forces Central Command said in a statement that the Lincoln "completed a regular and routine transit of the strait ... to conduct maritime security operations." The Lincoln is in the region with the USS Carl Vinson, giving theU.S. Navyits standard two-carrier presence there.

A British defense ministry spokesman, who was not named per policy, said Sunday that the "HMS Argyll and a French vessel joined a U.S. carrier group" going through the strait "to underline the unwavering international commitment to maintaining rights of passage under international law."

"Britain maintains a constant presence in the region as part of our enduring contribution to Gulf security," the spokesman said.

Several weeks ago, as the USS John Stennis left the Persian Gulf and headed back to the western Pacific, Iranian officials warned the United States not to send in another carrier.

"We have always stated that there is no need for the forces belonging to the countries beyond this region to have a presence in the Persian Gulf," Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi said in early January, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. "Their presence does nothing but create mayhem, and we never wanted them to be present in the Persian Gulf."

Tehran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the only outlet to and from the Persian Gulf between Iran and the United Arab Emirates as well as Oman, as Iran faces increased scrutiny over its nuclear program and possible sanctions on its oil exports. The critical shipping lane had 17 million barrels of oil per day passing through in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has responded by threatening to "respond" if Iran attempts to shut down traffic. He said that the U.S. naval and military presence in the region will not change and the current level is sufficient to deal with any situation that could arise.

"We have always maintained a very strong presence in that region," Panetta said earlier this month. "We have a Navy fleet located there. We have a military presence in that region. And ... we have continually maintained a strong presence in the region to make very clear that we were going to do everything possible to help secure the peace in that part of the world."

 

European Union ramps up pressure on Iran

European Union foreign ministers imposed fresh sanctions on Iran Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

The sanctions come because of Iran's "defiance of six U.N. Security Council resolutions and its refusal to enter negotiations over its nuclear program," Hague said in a statement from Brussels, Belgium.

Details of the sanctions will be available as soon as legal formalities are completed, said Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The EU was considering an embargo on buying Iranian oil, as well as restrictions on Iran's trade in gold and precious metals and a freeze on certain Iranian financial assets.

Iran exports 2.2. million barrels of oil a day, with about 18% bound for European markets, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The world consumes about 89 million barrels of oil per day.

The sanctions may have a grace period of three to eight months, an EU diplomat told CNN Friday, asking not to be named discussing internal negotiations. Such a grace period would allow European refiners to find new suppliers and Iran to find new buyers.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi told CNN last week that his country could make up the difference if Iran was banned from exporting oil.

Al-Naimi said the country has a spare capacity "to respond to emergencies worldwide, to respond to our customer demand, and that is really the focus. Our focus is not on who drops out from production, but who wants more."

Tehran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the only outlet to and from the Persian Gulf between Iran and the United Arab Emirates and Oman, as it faces possible sanctions.

The United States has made clear it will not let that happen.

The critical shipping lane had 17 million barrels of oil per day passing through in 2011, according to the EIA.

The Iranian government gets about half its revenue from oil exports, according to the EIA.

Analysts have said that while the new sanctions are the toughest ever imposed, they still contain many loopholes.

Iran is expected to still be able to sell its oil to places like China, India or other Asian countries, but perhaps at a discount of 10% to 15%. About 35% of Iran's oil exports currently go to China and India.

Western leaders have been walking a fine line with Iran, working to come up with a plan that squeezes the country's finances yet doesn't result in a loss of Iranian oil exports, which could send crude and gasoline prices skyrocketing.

The United States and United Kingdom have already put new measures in place against Iran, and Washington has been pressing allies including Japan and South Korea to stop buying Iranian oil.

On Friday, EU foreign policy chief Ashton challenged Iran to respond to an offer she made in a letter last October.

Ashton wrote that world powers are open to negotiations if Iran is serious about addressing its nuclear program without preconditions. Her office released the letter on Friday.

Ashton's spokesperson pointedly noted, "We are waiting for the Iranian reaction."

Ashton wrote that the West wants to "engage in a confidence-building exercise" that would lead to a "constructive dialogue" and a "step by step approach" in which Iran would assure the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington that "we stand by that letter."

"They have to give up their nuclear weapons program ... and they have to be willing to come to the table with a plan to do that," she said.

Clinton made the comments after a meeting at the State Department with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

The German minister was blunt in his assessment of Iran's actions: "Tehran keeps violating its international obligations on the transparency of its nuclear program. We have no choice but to pass tough new sanctions that address the financial sources of the nuclear program."

Iran says its nuclear program is not military, but the United States and many of its allies suspect Iran intends to produce a bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency has expressed similar concerns.

"One thing is clear," Westerwelle added. "The door for serious dialogue remains open, but the option of nuclear weapons in Iran is not acceptable to both of us."


 

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