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Iran hits back at US sanctions threat, steps up missile production

Tehran denies Washington claim it test-fired rockets near American, French ships in the Strait of Hormuz

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leaves after a press conference in his office in Tehran on December 16, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leaves after a press conference in his office in Tehran on December 16, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has ordered his defense minister to speed up the production of missiles, following a US warning of new sanctions for Iran’s test-firing of missiles — the first sanctions since the Islamic Republic and six world powers, including the US, signed a landmark nuclear deal in July over its nuclear program.

Rouhani said Iran would not accept any curbs on its missile program.

Tehran on Thursday accused the United States of lying about alleged test-firing of rockets near an American warship, as anger rose at the specter of new sanctions.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards denied that its naval forces had been involved in the December 26 incident in which the US said rockets came close to the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

File: Iran's Parliament during a session in Tehran on October 13, 2015, in which the parliament approved its nuclear deal with world powers, paving the way for the historic agreement curbing Tehran's atomic program to take effect and for the eventual lifting of sanctions. (Photo by AFP Photo/Tasnim/Meghdad Madadi)
File: Iran’s Parliament during a session in Tehran on October 13, 2015, in which the parliament approved its nuclear deal with world powers, paving the way for the historic agreement curbing Tehran’s atomic program to take effect and for the eventual lifting of sanctions. (Photo by AFP Photo/Tasnim/Meghdad Madadi)

The naval unit is responsible for securing Iranian interests in the Strait, a vital waterway for a large proportion of the world’s oil, regularly patrolling the area and conducting exercises.

“The Guards’ naval force had no exercise in the past week when the Americans claim that a missile or rocket was fired in the Hormuz Strait area,” spokesman General Ramezan Sharif said.

A US military official said an Iranian vessel had test-fired several rockets near three Western warships including the aircraft carrier. A French frigate and the USS Bulkeley destroyer were also in the area.

Though the rockets were not fired toward any warship, their proximity to them and several commercial ships — reportedly around 1,500 yards (meters) — was “highly provocative,” said the US official, who was not authorized to be named.

Sharif, quoted on the Guards’ website, accused the US of fabricating the incident — which reportedly occurred after Iranian naval forces announced via radio that the test-firing was to begin.

“Publishing such lies in the current situation is more a psychological operation,” Sharif said.

“The security and peace of the Gulf is of serious strategic importance to Iran. The Guards conduct exercises to increase our required preparedness at due times, based on our own schedule.”

Ballistic missile tests by Iran are prohibited under Security Council resolution 1929, which was passed five years ago and remains valid until July’s nuclear deal goes into effect. At that point, in line with another Security Council resolution, passed immediately after the summer’s nuclear deal, Iran will be “called upon” to refrain for up to eight years from any work on ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear weapons.

Both countries agree that the missile program is separate from the nuclear deal, which rewards Iran’s agreement to curb its nuclear program with the lifting of sanctions.

However, the US maintains it has the full right to blacklist Iranian entities suspected of involvement in missile development, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Earlier Thursday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that the possible sanctions were “unilateral, arbitrary and illegal.”

He said Iran would respond to “any kind of interventionist adventures by Washington in this regard.” He did not give details about the nature of an Iranian response.

Reuters reported earlier this month on a confidential report from UN sanctions monitors which noted that the medium-range rocket tested by Iran on October 10 was a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

Iran insists that the Emad missile test-fired in October is a “conventional” weapon, and that it is not working on nuclear weapons. It claims that the Security Council resolution applies to missiles “designed” to carry a nuclear warhead, not “capable of” doing so.

Satellite view of the Strait of Hormuz (photo credit: NASA/Public domain)
Satellite view of the Strait of Hormuz (photo credit: NASA/Public domain)

The strategic Persian Gulf waterway, which sees nearly a third of all oil traded by sea pass through it, has been the scene of past confrontations between America and Iran, including a one-day naval battle in 1988.

Military vessels taking part in the war against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria also pass through the narrow waterway between Iran and Oman. On Saturday, the USS Harry S. Truman, the USS Bulkeley destroyer and France’s the FS Provence were passing through it, said Cmdr. Kyle Raines, a US Central Command spokesman.

As they passed, Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels, hailing other ships in the strait over maritime radio, announced they’d be carrying out a live fire exercise, Raines said in a statement. After 23 minutes, the Iranian boats fired “several unguided rockets” about 1,370 meters (1,500 yards) from the warships and commercial traffic, he said.

“Firing weapons so close to passing coalition ships and commercial traffic within an internationally recognized maritime traffic lane is unsafe, unprofessional and inconsistent with international maritime law,” Raines said.

A French military official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to be publicly named, confirmed the rocket fire took place Saturday. However, the official said the French military did not consider it to be a threatening event as the rocket fire clearly wasn’t directed toward the Western fleet.

Iran and world powers led by the US agreed to a landmark nuclear deal earlier this year to limit Tehran’s enrichment of uranium in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Iran has always denied seeking nuclear arms.

The deal reached with the administration of the relatively moderate Rouhani has been panned by Iranian hard-liners, and in the months since, Iran has conducted missile tests criticized by the US, as well as aired footage on state television of an underground missile base.

Saturday’s rocket fire should be seen as part of a pattern by Iran since its naval loss in 1988, said Eugene Gholz, an associate professor at the University of Texas who is an expert on the use of military power in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran wants to portray itself as the region’s major power, but doesn’t want to directly battle US naval forces again, he said.

“Theater is a good word for it,” Gholz said. “You build a set, you carry out activity on the set, you send actors — in this case (Iranian Revolutionary Guard) special forces — and you hope people are watching and really paying the price of admission.”

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