Iranian forces are expected to launch a major exercise in the strategic Strait of Hormuz likely aimed at demonstrating an ability to close the key oil shipping lane, US officials told CNN Wednesday.
The drill by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the US officials said was likely to begin in the next two days, comes days after the country’s president threatened that it could close off the strategic waterway in response to the reimposition of US sanctions.
While Iranian forces drill in the Strait of Hormuz annually, one US official told the station that the exercise being planned appeared to be larger than those in years past and was timed unusually late in the year, indicating it was likely tied to recent tensions.
William Urban, chief spokesman for US Central Command, said the the military was closely monitoring Iranian troops movements in the area.
“We are aware of the increase in Iranian naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman. We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways,” he told CNN.
The Strait, a narrow passageway between Iran and Oman, is a key waterway through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes and it has been the scene of previous confrontations between the United States and Iran.
On July 22, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani gave a speech in which he threatened that Iran could block the passageway.
“We have always guaranteed the security of this strait. Do not play with the lion’s tail, you will regret it forever,” he said.
“Peace with Iran would be the mother of all peace and war with Iran would be the mother of all wars.”
The speech drew a furious response from US president Donald Trump, who warned Rouhani with dire consequences in an all-caps tweet.
“NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” Trump said on Twitter in a message to Rouhani.
Trump later said he would be willing to meet with Rouhani to negotiate a new nuclear deal, but the idea has been with a cool reception in Iran.
Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in May, and sanctions are set to kick back in within months. Iran’s currency has taken a nose dive in recent days as the looming sanctions have wreaked havoc on international investment in the country.
On Tuesday, the head of Iran’s navy said keeping the Strait of Hormuz operating was dependent on sanctions not being reimposed.
“The Strait of Hormuz remaining open hinges on Iran’s interests and the international community should live up to its obligations towards the Islamic Republic,” Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi said, according to state-run media.
A number of other senior Iranian officials, including the head of the IRGC, have threatened that Tehran could close the strait at any time.