Iran has the ability to block the Strait of Hormuz “for a period of time,” and the U.S. would take action to reopen it, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey said.
“They’ve invested in capabilities that could, in fact, for a period of time block the Strait of Hormuz,” Dempsey said in an interview aired yesterday on the CBS “Face the Nation” program. “We’ve invested in capabilities to ensure that if that happens, we can defeat that.”
Should Iran try to close Hormuz, the U.S. “would take action and reopen” the waterway, said Dempsey, President Barack Obama’s top military adviser.
Blocking the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic shipping lane linking the Gulf of Oman with the Persian Gulf, would constitute a “red line” for the U.S., as would Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on the same program.
The U.S. tightened economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program on Dec. 31, and the European Union is weighing a ban later this month on purchases of Iranian crude.
Iran threatened last month to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a transit point for a fifth of oil traded worldwide, if sanctions are imposed on its crude exports. Iran held 10 days of naval maneuvers east of the strait ending Jan. 3. The country plans even bigger military maneuvers in the area next month, the state-run Fars news agency reported on Jan. 5.
U.S. sanctions imposed last year seek to cut off dealings with Iran’s banking system, making it difficult for consumers to buy the country’s oil.
Iran has also started to enrich uranium at its Fordo production facility, according to the official Kayhan newspaper.
The existence of the Fordo plant, built into the side of a mountain near the Muslim holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, was disclosed in September 2009, heightening concern among the U.S. and its allies who say Iran’s activities may be a cover for the development of atomic weapons. The Persian Gulf country says it needs nuclear technology to secure energy for its growing population.
Pressure on Iran
Continued pressure, rather than threats of air strikes, is the best way to forestall Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Panetta said.
While the U.S. shouldn’t “take any option off the table,“ Panetta said “the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing, and to make sure that they do not make the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.”
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Jan. 1 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he would use air strikes against Iran unless the country dismantled its nuclear program or allowed inspectors to verify that the work isn’t aimed at making a weapon.
Dempsey suggested that curbing Iran’s nuclear work by bombing its facilities would be difficult.
“I’d rather not discuss the degree of difficulty and in any way encourage them to read anything into that,” Dempsey said. “My responsibility is to encourage the right degree of planning, to understand the risks associated with any kind of military option.”
Should Israel decide to undertake a unilateral military strike against Iran, the U.S. priority would be protecting American troops in the region, Panetta said.
Dempsey and Panetta sought on CBS to provide assurances that the new U.S. military strategy, announced last week, won’t limit the U.S. ability to stop aggressors.
“What we’re looking to do here is not constrain ourselves to a two-war construct, but rather build a force that has the kind of agility” needed to adapt to any scenario, Dempsey said. Previous U.S. war planning called for preparing to fight two conventional wars simultaneously.
The plan was driven by the need to cut almost $490 billion from projected Pentagon spending through 2021, including about $261 billion through 2017. Panetta said last week the details won’t be released until the Pentagon presents its 2013 budget request to Congress by early February.