* Revolutionary Guards say US navy in Gulf nothing new
* Apparent retreat from previous threats to Washington
* Tensions high over new sanctions and nuclear activities
By Robin Pomeroy and Hashem Kalantari
TEHRAN, Jan 21 Iran's Revolutionary Guard
Corps said on Saturday it considered the likely return of U.S.
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.
"U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
(Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Sophie Hares)