* Threat to U.S. carrier is latest in series of gestures
* Iran's currency plunges on sanctions fears
* U.S. has toughened sanctions
* EU considering oil import ban
By Parisa Hafezi
TEHRAN, Jan 3 Iran threatened on Tuesday
to take action if the U.S. Navy moves an aircraft carrier into
the Gulf, Tehran's most aggressive statement yet after weeks of
sabre-rattling as new U.S. and EU financial sanctions take a
toll on its economy.
The United States dismissed the Iranian threat, saying it
was proof that sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear programme
were working. The Pentagon said it would keep sending carrier
strike groups through the Gulf regardless.
The prospect of sanctions targeting the oil sector in a
serious way for the first time has hit Iran's rial currency,
which reached a record low on Tuesday and has fallen by 40
percent against the dollar in the past month.
Queues formed at Tehran banks and some currency exchange
offices shut their doors as Iranians scrambled to buy dollars to
protect their savings. World oil prices jumped more than 4
Army chief Ataollah Salehi said the United States had moved
an aircraft carrier out of the Gulf because of Iran's naval
exercises, and Iran would take action if the ship returned.
"Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy's carrier
has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill. I
recommend and emphasise to the American carrier not to return to
the Persian Gulf....we are not in the habit of warning more than
once," he said.
The Pentagon appeared to walk a delicate line, assuring more
"regularly scheduled movements" of aircraft carrier strike
groups into the Gulf, but stopping short of announcing any
special activity in response to the Iranian threat.
"The deployment of U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf
region will continue as it has for decades," the Pentagon said.
The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis leads a U.S. Navy
task force in the region. It is now outside the Gulf in the
Arabian Sea, providing air support for the war in Afghanistan,
said Lieutenant Rebecca Rebarich, spokeswoman for the 5th Fleet.
The carrier left the Gulf on Dec. 27 on a planned routine
transit through the Strait of Hormuz, she said.
Forty percent of the world's traded oil flows through that
narrow straight - which Iran threatened last month to shut if
sanctions halted its oil exports.
Brent crude futures were up more than $4 in late
Tuesday afternoon trade in London, pushing above $111 a barrel.
Asked at the Pentagon whether there was any U.S. military
plan to bolster its presence in the Gulf or test the Iranian
threat, spokesman George Little said: "No one in this government
seeks confrontation over the Strait of Hormuz."
"It is important to lower the temperature," he said.
Tehran's latest threat comes at a time when sanctions are
having an impact on its economy, and the country faces political
uncertainty with an election in March, its first since a 2009
vote that triggered countrywide demonstrations.
The West has imposed the increasingly tight sanctions over
Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran says is strictly peaceful
but Western countries believe aims to build an atomic bomb.
After years of measures that had little impact, the new
sanctions are the first that could have a serious effect on
Iran's oil trade, which is 60 percent of its economy.
Sanctions signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on
New Year's Eve would cut financial institutions that work with
Iran's central bank off from the U.S. financial system, blocking
the main path for Iran to receive payments for its crude.
The EU is expected to impose new sanctions by the end of
this month, possibly including a ban on oil imports and a freeze
of central bank assets.
Even Iran's top trading partner China - which has refused to
back new global sanctions against Iran - is demanding discounts
to buy Iranian oil as Tehran's options narrow. Beijing has cut
its imports of Iranian crude by more than half for January.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the latest Iranian
threat "reflects the fact that Iran is in a position of
weakness." State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it
showed international pressure was "beginning to bite."
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will visit his
counterpart in Tehran on Wednesday to discuss Iran's nuclear
programme and developments in Iraq and Syria.
Iran has responded to the tighter measures with belligerent
rhetoric, spooking oil markets briefly when it announced last
month it could prevent shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
It then held 10 days of naval exercises in the Gulf, test
firing missiles that could hit U.S. bases in the Middle East.
Tuesday's apparent threat to take action against the U.S. Navy
in international waters takes the rhetoric to a new level.
Experts still say they do not expect Tehran to charge
headlong into an act of war - the U.S. Navy is overwhelmingly
more powerful than Iran's sea forces - but Iran is running out
of diplomatic room to avert a confrontation.
"I think we should be very worried because the diplomacy
that should accompany this rise in tension seems to be lacking
on both sides," said Richard Dalton, former British ambassador
to Iran and now an associate fellow at Chatham House think tank.
"I don't believe either side wants a war to start. I think
the Iranians will be aware that if they block the Strait or
attack a U.S. ship, they will be the losers. Nor do I think that
the U.S. wants to use its military might other than as a means
of pressure. However, in a state of heightened emotion on both
sides, we are in a dangerous situation."
Henry Wilkinson at Janusian Risk Advisory consultants said
the threats might be a bid by Iran to remind countries
contemplating sanctions of the cost of havoc on oil markets.
"Such threats can cause market confidence in the global oil
supply to wobble and can push up oil prices and shipping
insurance prices. For the EU powers debating new sanctions, this
could be quite a pinch in the current economic climate."
The new U.S. sanctions law, if implemented fully, would make
it impossible for many refineries to pay Iran for crude. It
takes effect gradually and lets Obama grant waivers to prevent
an oil price shock, so its precise impact is hard to gauge.
The European Union is expected to consider new measures by
the end of this month. The sanctions would halt purchase of
Iranian oil by EU members such as crisis-hit Greece, which has
relied on easy financing terms offered by Tehran to buy crude.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Paris wants new
measures taken by Jan. 30, when EU foreign ministers meet. A
German Foreign Ministry spokesman said Berlin was in talks with
other EU states on "qualitatively new sanctions."
Greek government sources said that Athens, thought of as a
possible veto-wielding holdout, was ready to support sanctions.
One official told Reuters: "If the European Union decides to
impose the sanctions, Greece will join them."
Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign policy chief
Catherine Ashton, said member states would discuss the issue
this week in the hope of agreeing on new steps before the Jan.
30 meeting. "The ball is still in the Iranians' court," he said.
Iran has written to Ashton asking to restart talks over its
nuclear programme that collapsed a year ago. The EU says it does
not want talks unless Iran is prepared to discuss serious steps,
such as halting its enrichment of uranium.
CHINA CUTS IRAN OIL IMPORTS
Although China, India and other countries are unlikely to
sign up to any oil embargo, tighter Western sanctions mean such
customers will be able to insist on deeper discounts for Iranian
oil, reducing Tehran's income.
Beijing has already been driving a hard bargain. China,
which bought 11 percent of its oil from Iran during the first 11
months of last year, has cut its January purchase by about
285,000 barrels per day, more than half of the close to 550,000
bpd that it bought through a 2011 contract.
The impact of falling government income from oil sales can
be felt on the streets in Iran in soaring prices for state
subsidised goods and a collapse of the rial currency.
"The rate is changing every second ... We are not taking in
any rials to change to dollars or any other foreign currency,"
said Hamid Bakshi at an exchange office in central Tehran.
The economic impact is being felt ahead of a nationwide
parliamentary election on March 2, the first vote since a
disputed 2009 presidential election that brought tens of
thousands of Iranian demonstrators into the streets.
In a sign of political tension among Iran's elite, a court
jailed the daughter of powerful former President Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani on Tuesday for "anti-state propaganda."
Rafsanjani sided with reformists during the 2009 protests.
Daughter Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani went on trial last month on
charges of "campaigning against the Islamic establishment."