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U.S.-Iran Tensions Riding on Oil Shipments Through the Strait of Hormuz

January 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the Iran story. Facing more Western sanctions, the Tehran regime lashes back.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: A drumbeat of new threats from Iran began last week, punctuated by a show of naval force in the Persian Gulf. Its military leaders insisted they could and would block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, if Western sanctions target Iran’s oil exports.

HABIBULAH SAYARI, Iranian Navy commander (through translator): Closing the Strait of Hormuz for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran is very easy. It’s a capability that’s been built initially into our naval forces abilities.

MARGARET WARNER: One-fifth of the world’s oil production flows through the strait, just 21 miles wide at its narrowest point. The strategic passage links the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

Further upping the ante, on Monday, Iran test-fired a new longer-range cruise missile in the Gulf. Its 10-day naval exercises ended yesterday, with a new warning from Iran’s army chief.

GEN. ATAOLLAH SALEHI, Iranian Army (through translator): In my opinion, the enemy has gotten the message of the military drill. And we want to emphasize that we have no plan to begin any irrational act, but we are ready against any threat. And we warn the American warship which was previously in the Persian Gulf which is a threat to us that it shouldn’t return. And we are not used to repeating our warnings.

MARGARET WARNER: The ship in question is the aircraft carrier John c. Stennis, seen here in July. It recently left the Persian Gulf as a scheduled tour of duty ended. Pentagon officials were quick to say yesterday that American warships, including carriers, will continue to deploy in the region.

Tehran suggested its tough talk was in reaction to new U.S. sanctions against Iran that Congress adopted in mid-December, as part of a defense bill. The sanctions would impose penalties on foreign companies that do business with Iran’s Central Bank, which collects payments for Iran’s oil exports.

The bill is the latest effort to pressure the Islamic republic give up its nuclear program. President Obama signed the bill into law on Saturday while on vacation. Tehran responded Sunday with a surprise New Year’s Day announcement: The country has produced its first nuclear fuel rod.

The Tehran regime says it’s only trying to develop a civilian nuclear power capability. The U.S. and its allies suspect Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons.

In Washington yesterday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tehran’s bellicose moves show a certain desperation.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: I think it reflects the fact that Iran is in a position of weakness. It’s the latest round of Iranian threats. And it’s confirmation that Tehran is under increasing pressure for its continued failures to live up to its international obligation.

MARGARET WARNER: The new sanctions don’t take effect for six months, but they’ve already sent Iran’s currency, the rial, plummeting. All this comes as the regime faces domestic tests as well, with the approach of parliamentary elections in March and an ongoing power struggle between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.