Iran steps up threats to close Strait of Hormuz after EU imposes oil embargo
Warning comes as EU nations agree in Brussels on sanctions over the country's controversial nuclear program; Netanyahu says embargo is 'step in the right direction.'
Two Iranian lawmakers on Monday stepped up threats their country would close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world's crude flows, in retaliation for oil sanctions on Tehran.
The warnings came as EU nations agreed in Brussels on an oil embargo against Iran as part of sanctions over the country's controversial nuclear program. The measure includes an immediate embargo on new contracts for Iranian crude and petroleum products while existing ones will be allowed to run until July.
Iran has repeatedly warned it would choke off the strait if sanctions affect its oil sales, and two lawmakers ratcheted up the rhetoric on Monday.
Lawmaker Mohammad Ismail Kowsari, deputy head of Iran's influential committee on national security, said the strait "would definitely be closed if the sale of Iranian oil is violated in any way."
Kowsari claimed that in case of the strait's closure, the U.S. and its allies would not be able to reopen the route, and warned America not to attempt any "military adventurism."
Another senior lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said Iran has the right to shutter Hormuz in retaliation for oil sanctions and that the closure was increasingly probable, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.
"In case of threat, the closure of the Strait of Hormuz is one of Iran's rights," Falahatpisheh said. "So far, Iran has not used this privilege."
Monday's EU measure also includes a freeze on the assets of Iran's central bank as part of sanctions meant to pressure Tehran to resume talks on its uranium enrichment, a process that can lead to making nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the decision, calling it "a step in the right direction."
According to Netanyahu, who spoke at an afternoon Likud faction meeting, it is still too early to predict the outcome of the sanctions, but he emphasized the importance of continual pressure on Iran in light of "its continual, uninterrupted development of nuclear weapons."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Monday called for other countries to join the European Union in its boycott of Iranian oil. China imports a lion share of Tehran's crude. Other major importers include India, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Turkey.
"Oil embargo is a word easily said," Westerwelle told reporters after a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels. "But if the message to the Iranian leadership is to be clear, then it needs more than just a Western voice. It needs an international voice."
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was critical on Monday of planned new European Union sanctions against Iran, saying they would push Tehran away from the negotiating table and do little to increase regional security.
"These unilateral steps are not helpful," Lavrov said at a press conference in the Russian Black Sea port of Sochi, the Interfax news agency reported.
For its part, the United States has enacted, but not yet put into force, sanctions targeting Iran's central bank and, by extension, the country's ability to be paid for its oil.
Some 80 percent of Iran's oil revenue comes from exports and any measures or sanctions taken that affect its ability to export oil could hit hard at its economy. With about 4 million barrels per day, Iran is the second largest producer in OPEC.
Reflecting the uncertainties, on Monday the Iranian currency, the rial, fell to a new low, trading at nearly 21,000 to the dollar, a five percent drop since Saturday and 14 percent since Friday, currency dealers said. A year ago the rial was trading at 10,500 to the dollar.
Tensions over the strait and the potential impact on global oil supplies and also the price of crude have weighed heavily on consumers and traders. Both the U.S.¬ and Britain have warned Iran over any disruption to the world's oil supply through the strait.
Another Iranian lawmaker, Ali Adyani, sought to downplay the latest EU move, describing it as a "mere propaganda gesture," according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.
Former intelligence minister, Ali Falahaian, suggested Iran should stop all its crude exports "so that oil prices would go up and the Europeans' sanctions would collapse."
Threats to close the strait escalated during Iran's naval exercises in the Persian Gulf in January. Iran plans more naval war games in February.