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Sun 22 Jan 2012 08:25 AM

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Iran plays down US navy tensions after threats

Tehran reins in rhetoric on US warships, backing down from warnings to Washington

Iran plays down US navy tensions after threats
Iran had threatened the US navy with action if it returned a warship to Gulf waters

Iran's
Revolutionary Guard Corps said on Saturday it considered the likely return of US
warships to the Gulf part of routine activity, backing away from previous
warnings
to Washington not to re-enter the area.

The
statement may be seen as an effort to reduce tensions after Washington said it
would respond if Iran made good on a threat to block the Strait of Hormuz - the
vital shipping lane for oil exports from the Gulf.

"US
warships and military forces have been in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East
region for many years and their decision in relation to the dispatch of a new
warship is not a new issue and it should be interpreted as part of their
permanent presence," Revolutionary Guard Deputy Commander Hossein Salami
told the official IRNA news agency.

The
apparently conciliatory comments may be a response to the European Union and
Washington's rejection of Iran's declaration it was close to resuming
negotiations with world powers and with the Pentagon saying it did not expect
any challenge to its warships.

Crude
prices have spiked several times this year on fears diplomatic tensions could
escalate to military clashes as well as uncertainty about the effect of
sanctions on the oil market.

Along
with the EU, which is set to agree an embargo on Iranian oil next week,
Washington hopes the sanctions will force Iran to suspend the nuclear
activities it believes are aimed at making an atom bomb, a charge Tehran
denies.

There
has been no US aircraft carrier in the Gulf since the USS John C. Stennis left
at the end of December at a time when the Revolutionary Guard was conducting
naval manoeuvres.

On
Jan. 3, after US President Barack Obama signed new sanctions aimed at stopping
Iran's oil exports, Tehran told the Stennis not to return - an order interpreted
by some observers in Iran and Washington as a blanket threat to any US
carriers.

"I
recommend and emphasize to the American carrier not to return to the Persian
Gulf," Iran's army chief, Major General Ataollah Salehi, said at the time.
"We are not in the habit of warning more than once."

Washington
says it will return to the Gulf and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said any
move to block Hormuz - through which around a third of the world's sea-borne
traded oil passes - would be seen as a "red line", requiring a
response.

Citing
operational security, the Pentagon will not say when the next carrier will
return to the Gulf but officials say it is only a matter of time and they do
not expect any problems.

In
the coming days or weeks, the Revolutionary Guard will begin new naval
exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf. Salami told IRNA these would go
ahead as planned in the Iranian month of Bahman which runs from Jan. 21 to Feb.
19.

Iran
has said it is ready to return to talks with world powers that stalled one year
ago, but the West, concerned about Tehran's move of the most sensitive atomic
work to a bomb-proof bunker, says it must first see a willingness from Tehran
to address the nuclear issue.

French
President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday "time is running out" for a
diplomatic solution and urged Russia and China to drop their opposition to
sanctions on Iranian oil.

Iran
is OPEC's second biggest exporter and blocking its crude exports - through the
EU embargo or US moves to punish banks that trade with Iran - could have a
devastating impact on its economy but there are no signs so far such pressure
would force it to stop what it calls its peaceful nuclear rights.