Iran's navy chief said Thursday his forces plan to hold a 10-day drill in international waters beyond the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, an exercise that could bring Iranian ships into proximity with U.S. Navy vessels.
The drill will be Iran's latest show of strength in the face of mounting international criticism over its controversial nuclear program, which the West fears is aimed at producing atomic weapons — charges that Tehran denies, insisting the program is for peaceful purposes only.
The Strait of Hormuz is of strategic significance as the passageway for about a third of the world's oil tanker traffic. Beyond it lie vast bodies of water, including the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The U.S. Navy's Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet is also active in the area, as are warships of several other countries that patrol for pirates there.
"The maneuvres will be carried out with the intention of displaying the determination, defensive and deterrent power of the Iranian armed forces as well as relaying a message of peace and friendship in the Strait of Hormuz, the Sea of Oman and the free waters of the Indian Ocean," Adm. Habibollah Sayyari said.
Both the U.S. and Israel have not ruled out a military option against Iran over its nuclear program, while Iranian hard-liners have come out with occasional threats that Tehran would seal off the key waterway if the U.S. or Israel moved against the country's nuclear facilities.
Sayyari told Iranian state TV that the maneuvers, dubbed Velayat-90, will begin on Saturday. "Velayat" is Persian for "supremacy".
He said they will be held in a 1,250-mile stretch of sea off the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula and into the Gulf of Aden, near the entrance to the Red Sea.
Iran regularly holds war games and has also been active in fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Sayyari denied an Iranian media report from last week that the drill would close the Strait of Hormuz. "There has been no decision yet on this," he was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.
However, he stressed that Iran's navy and the Revolutionary Guard have the capability to close the strait but that "any decision on this will have to come from the leader," referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Sayyari said Iranian navy would use submarines, warships, missiles and torpedoes as well as unmanned planes during the drill but that it would take place "within the framework of international norms."
Some analysts and diplomats believe the Islamic Republic could try to block the Strait of Hormuz in the event of any war with the West over suspicions it is seeking atom bombs. Iran's arch-foes Israel and the United States have not ruled out military action if diplomacy and sanctions fail to rein in Iran's nuclear work.
Military experts say Iran's armed forces could not match U.S. military technology but could still cause havoc in shipping lanes, particularly using small craft for hit-and-run attacks.
To ease international pressure, Iran has invited a team of senior U.N. nuclear officials to visit the Islamic state in January to discuss global concerns about the country's nuclear aspirations. Such visits in the past by senior IAEA officials have failed to resolve the long-running nuclear row.
Tehran has been hit by U.N., U.S. and European sanctions since 2006 for refusing to halt its sensitive nuclear work.