Iran warns strikes will damage West '10 times more'
IRAN'S powerful Revolutionary Guard began military exercises yesterday in the country's south, the latest show of force after threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for tougher Western sanctions.
Plans for new Iranian naval games in the Persian Gulf have been in the works for weeks. State media said that ground forces began manoeuvres in southern Iran, but it was not immediately clear whether it was part of the planned naval training missions scheduled for this month or a separate operation.
The latest military manoeuvres got under way following stern warnings by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about any possible US or Israeli attacks against Tehran's nuclear facilities. It also comes after Western forces boosted their naval presence in the Gulf, led by the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Iran has so far made no attempts to disrupt shipping through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the route for one-fifth of the world's crude oil. The US and allies have said they would respond swiftly to any attempts at a blockade.
Last month, Iran's navy wrapped up 10 days of exercises in the Gulf, but the Revolutionary Guard -- which is directly under control of the supreme leader -- represents a significantly stronger military force and controls key programmes such as missile development. Iranian state media announced the new manoeuvres, but gave no further details.
Khamenei, in a speech nationally broadcast last Friday, staked out a hard line after suggestions by Israel that military strikes are an increasing possibility if sanctions fail to rein in the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme.
He pledged to aid any nation or group that challenges Israel and said any military strikes would damage US interests in the Middle East "10 times" more than they would hurt Iran.
The comments also may signal that Tehran's proxy forces -- led by Lebanon's Islamic militant group Hezbollah -- could be given the green light to revive attacks on Israel as the showdown intensifies.
The West and its allies fear Iran could use its uranium enrichment labs -- which make nuclear fuel -- to eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Israel has so far publicly backed the efforts by the US and European Union for tougher sanctions that target Iran's crucial oil exports.
But Israeli leaders have urged even harsher measures and warn that military action remains a clear option despite Western appeals to allow time for the economic pressures and isolation to bear down on Iran.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said Europe won't accept a nuclear-armed Iran and that sanctions were essential to avoid a military confrontation.
"The decision to enlarge sanctions against Iran shows that Europe is not willing to accept a nuclear-armed Iran," Mr Westerwelle said.
"It would endanger the security architecture of the world as a whole. The point of sanctions is to avoid a military confrontation."
Iran's oil minister, Rostam Qassemi, repeated claims that an EU oil embargo would not cripple Iran's economy, claiming yesterday that the country already had identified new customers to replace the loss in European sales that accounted for about 18 per cent of Iran's exports.
Mr Qassemi also reinforced Iran's warning to Saudi Arabia and other fellow OPEC members against boosting production to offset any potential drop in Tehran's crude exports, saying the cartel should not be used as a political weapon against a member state.
Although Israel has raised the strongest hints that it is likely to start a military campaign, Khamenei reserved his strongest comments for Israel's key ally -- the USA.
A war itself "will damage the US 10 times more" than the region, said Khamenei.
Khamenei claimed Iran, however, could only emerge stronger. "Iran will not withdraw. Then what happens?" asked Khamenei.
"In conclusion, the West's hegemony and threats will be discredited" in the Middle East. "The hegemony of Iran will be promoted. In fact, this will be in our service."
Last Thursday, Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, suggested that the world was increasingly ready to consider a military strike if sanctions failed.