Thursday afternoon, Dec. 29, Tehran raised the pitch of its threats to the United States when Dep. Chief of the Revolutionary Guards Gen. Hossein Salami declared: "The United States is in no position to tell Tehran what to do in the Strait of Hormuz," adding, "Any threat will be responded [to] by threat… We will not relinquish our strategic moves in Iran's vital interests are undermined by any means."
The Iranian general spoke after the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier and its strike group passed through the Strait of Hormuz to the Sea of Oman and into the area where the big Iranian naval war game Veleyati 90 is taking place.
At around the same time, Israel's chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz spoke of "the rising potential for a multi-arena event," i.e. a comprehensive armed conflict. Facing in several directions as we are "between terrorist organizations and Iran's progress toward a nuclear weapon… we can't afford to stay on the defensive and must come up with offensive measures," he said.
Earlier Thursday, Dec. 29, debkafile reported that an Iranian plan to mine the Strait of Hormuz had put US and NATO forces in the Persian Gulf on the alert.
US and NATO task forces in the Persian Gulf have been placed on alert after US intelligence warned that Iran's Revolutionary Guards are preparing Iranian marine commandos to sow mines in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
The new deployment, debkafile's military sources report, consists of USS Combined Task Force 52 (CTF 52), which is trained and equipped for dismantling marine mines and NATO Maritime Mine Counter measures Group 2 (SNMCMG2). The American group is led by the USS Arden mine countermeasures ship; NATO's by the British HMS Pembroke minesweeper. Other vessels in the task forces are the Hunt-class destroyer HMS Middleton and the French mine warfare ships FS Croix du Sud and FS Var.
Also on the ready are several US Expeditionary Combat Readiness units of the US Fifth Fleet Bahrain command. Seventeen of these special marine units are attached to the Fifth Fleet as America's answer to the Iranian Navy's fast assault boats and marine units.
US military sources told debkafile Wednesday, Dec. 28, that United States has the countermeasures for sweeping the waterway of mines and making it safe for marine passage after no more than a 24-48 hour interruption.
At the same time, leading military and naval officials in Washington take Tehran's threats seriously. They don't buy the proposition advanced by various American pundits and analysts that Iran would never close the Strait of Hormuz, though which one third of the world's oil passes, because it would then bottle up its own energy exports. Those officials, according to our sources, believe that Tehran hopes the mines in the waterway will blow up passing oil tankers and other shipping. It doesn't have to be sealed hermetically to endanger international shipping; just a few mines here and there and an explosion would be enough to deter shippers and crews from risking their vessels.
As Adm. Habibollah Sayari commander of the Iranian Navy put it Wednesday, Dec. 28: "Shutting the strait for Iran's armed forces is really easy – or as we say in Iran, easier than drinking a glass of water." He went on to say: "But today, we don't need [to shut] the strait because we have the Sea of Oman under control and can control transit."
debkafile's Middle East marine sources said the Iranian admiral's boast about the Sea of Oman was just hot air. For the big Iranian Velayati 90 sea exercise which began Saturday, America has deployed in that sea two large air and sea strike groups led by the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier and the USS Bataan aircraft amphibious ship.
And they are highly visible: Thursday morning, Dec. 29, Iranian Navy's Deputy Commander Rear Adm. Mahmoud Mousavi reported an Iranian Navy aircraft had shot footage and images of a US carrier spotted in an area where the Velayat 90 war games were being conducted – most probably the Stennis. Its presence, he said, demonstrated that Iran's naval forces were "precisely monitoring all moves by extra-regional powers" in the region.
Clearly, the US navy is very much on the spot in the Sea of Oman and other areas of the Iranian war game.
Middle East sources warn however that the repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz coming from Tehran this week and the framework of its naval exercise clearly point to the manner in which Iran intends to hit back for the tough new sanctions which the West plans to approve next month. The new round is expected to shear off 80 percent of the Islamic Republic's revenues.
The European Union's 27 member-states meet in January to approve an embargo on Iranian oil, with effect on 25 percent of Iran's energy exports. Next month, too, President Barack Obama plans to sign into law an amendment authorizing severe penalties for foreign banks trading with Iran's central bank, CBI, including the loss of links with American banks and financial institutions.
Tehran is expected to strike back hard by sowing mines in Hormuz and in the waters opposite the oil fields and terminals of fellow Persian Gulf oil producers, including Saudi Arabia.
It would not be the first time. In 1987 and 1988, sea mines were sown in the Persian Gulf for which Iran never took responsibility. It was generally seen as Tehran's payback for US and Gulf Emirates' backing for Iraq in its long war with the Islamic Republic. A number of oil tankers and American warships were struck by mines, including the USS Samuel B. Roberts. Such disasters can be averted today by means of the sophisticated countermeasures now in US hands.