WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a clear warning Sunday that the U.S. military will quickly respond if Iran attempts to carry out its threat to choke off world energy supplies by closing the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
“We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Strait of Hormuz, that’s another red line for us and that we will respond to them,” Panetta said.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the Iranians could block tanker traffic “for a period of time” in the narrow strait, a crucial artery for oil and gas supplies from the Middle East.
“We’ve invested in capabilities to ensure that if that happens, we can defeat that,” Dempsey said. “But we would take action and reopen the strait.”
Their blunt restatement of U.S. policy in a joint interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” marks the latest volley in the escalating war of words between Western governments and Iran in recent weeks.
In a mounting effort to pressure Iran to stop its disputed nuclear program, the Obama administration and the European Union have both threatened to impose new sanctions intended to sharply restrict Iran’s ability to sell oil, which underpins its economy, on global markets.
In response, Iranian leaders have threatened to block the waterway that links the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman off Iran’s southern border. Tankers carry about 20 percent of the world’s oil and gas through the strait, and disruption of the supply would cause economic turmoil around the globe.
In the latest version, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard was quoted in a Tehran newspaper as saying government leaders had decided not to “allow a drop of oil” to pass through the Strait of Hormuz if “our enemies block the export of our oil.”
Iran has shown no sign of slowing its nuclear program, which it insists is enriching uranium only for civilian power plants and research. The U.S. and its allies fear the effort could be used to develop high-grade nuclear fuel for warheads.
On Sunday, a leading Iranian newspaper reported that the Islamic republic had begun enriching uranium at Fordo, a new underground site thought to be better protected from possible Western airstrikes than Iran’s major facility in Natanz.
“The transfer of uranium enrichment to Fordo means that the option of a military threat against the nuclear program of Iran is taken off the table for good,” the Kayhan daily said in a front-page report Sunday. “The West will have to gradually accept the immunity of the program against any interference by foreigners.”
The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Fereydoun Abbasi, told the semiofficial Mehr news agency on Saturday that the Fordo facility would start up “in the near future,” according to a report on the agency’s English-language site. But Kayhan, which is close to Iran’s ruling clerics, said Iran has begun feeding uranium gas into upgraded centrifuges at Fordo, a step toward creating enriched fuel. The seemingly conflicting accounts could not immediately be reconciled.