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The United States is closely monitoring Iranian naval activity to ensure no disruptions occur to global shipping, a top U.S. general said Wednesday, as tensions with Tehran intensify over renewed economic pressure from the Trump administration.
Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, said a recent Iranian naval exercise appeared to be linked to President Trump’s decision to reimpose trade sanctions in the wake of the U.S. exit from the 2015 nuclear deal.
“We are paying attention,” Votel told reporters at the Pentagon. “We’re extraordinarily vigilant and watching for changes in the environment.”
The Iranian government described the exercise in the Strait of Hormuz, a key commercial passageway off the Iranian coast, as a routine exercise by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The two countries have exchanged a series of threats in recent weeks, including Trump’s tweeted suggestion that the United States might use military force against Iran to inflict “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
Days later, Iran hit back with a response from Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, who said the United States would regret undertaking any military conflict with Iran. “You may begin the war, but it will be us who will end it,” he said.
Iranian officials have also suggested they could move to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, which serves as transit point for a third of global oil shipments.
The menacing comments are an indication of the combustible nature of dealings between the two countries, as disagreements over the nuclear deal escalate. Last week, Tehran also appeared to rebuff a comment from Trump suggesting he would be open to meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Administration officials have vowed to take a tough line on Iran and its support for armed groups across the Middle East, from Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen. While it has slapped new sanctions on some Iranian affiliates, the administration has yet to curb Tehran’s ballistic missile program or make visible progress in reducing its proxy activity.
The United States also blames Iran for backing Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have attacked ships in nearby waters. Votel singled out Soleimani for driving much of that militant activity.
He said military officials would use intelligence and surveillance to keep apprised of Iranian activities that might impact maritime commerce. He also said that since the latest sanctions, Iran had not shown any signs of harassing U.S. ships, as it has done intermittently in the past.
The sanctions imposed this month prohibit Iran from using U.S. dollars, the primary currency for international financial transactions and oil purchases, and restrict Iranian trade in metals, carpets and other goods.
Military leaders do not favor a conflict with Iran at a time when the Pentagon is seeking to shift its focus to competition with Russia and China. They also hope to avoid moves that would trigger a renewal of attacks on U.S. personnel by Iranian-backed militias, which occurred widely in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.