Iran's top naval commander said Wednesday that closing the Persian Gulf to oil tanker traffic would be "easier than drinking a glass of water" but that his nation 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," Habibollah Sayyari told the country's English language Press TV. "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 Washington, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, George Little, warned that interference with the passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz "will not be tolerated.... This is not just an important issue for security and stability in the region, but is an economic lifeline for countries in the gulf."
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, sounded a note of skepticism about the threat, saying it was "more rhetoric from the Iranians.... I'm saying at this point it's pure speculation."
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 new sanctions. However, there were no immediate signs that their words were a prelude to military action or any more than verbal jousting with Iran's international critics.
The international community has already imposed some sanctions in response to Iran's pursuit of a nuclear program, which Tehran says has peaceful goals 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."
Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist at Rand Corp., said the Iranian language was intended to warn the United States and allies against proceeding with the additional harsh economic sanctions they have been preparing.
With their economy already under stress, Iranian officials are worried about the loss of their traditional oil customers and damage to the operations of their central bank. President Obama is expected to soon sign legislation designed to deter foreign companies from buying petroleum through the central bank, even as the European Union weighs an embargo on oil purchases from Tehran.
"Iran is raising the ante by saying, 'We don't have the military capability to completely close it, but we can impede traffic,'" said Nader. Though neither the United States nor Iran wants war, "tensions are so high that there's room for miscalculation."
But Nader Karimi Joni, an Iranian economic and political analyst, was dismissive of the threat. "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, "and it will not be in the near future."
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Richter from Washington.