TEHRAN Iran's supreme leader has put its elite Revolutionary Guards in charge of defending the oil-rich Gulf against any enemy attacks, a top military adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
The Guards, seen as fiercely loyal to Iran's system of clerical rule, would not hesitate to "confront foreign forces", adviser Yahya Rahim-Safavi told the official IRNA news agency.
The move comes amid persistent speculation about a possible U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, which the West and Israel say are part of a clandestine bid to build atomic bombs, despite Tehran's denials.
Energy experts are concerned any conflict in Iran could lead to a shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between the Gulf and the Sea of Oman through which roughly 40 percent of the world's traded oil is shipped.
Rahim-Safavi, previously head of the Revolutionary Guards, said Khamenei, Iran's top authority, had given full authority to the Guards as the only military force defending the Gulf.
"After the Americans found out about this decision they told their warships not to get close to Iranian territory because the Revolutionary Guards do not hesitate to immediately confront foreign forces," he said.
Alongside the regular army, Iran has a Revolutionary Guards force viewed as guardians of the Islamic ruling system.
The Guards have a separate command and their own air, sea and land units. They are deployed on sensitive border regions and guard key institutions and their arsenal includes the Shahab-3 missile, which reportedly can reach targets in Israel.
One Iranian analyst said power in the military had increasingly shifted to the Guards, particularly in naval operations because of the cost of running a parallel navy.
"It is an indication of the power of the Revolutionary Guards. They are the main protector of the Islamic Republic and Islamic revolution, and they are trusted by the supreme leader," the analyst said about Khamenei's decision.
Putting the elite force in charge was probably also aimed at adding weight to Iran's claim that it could maintain security and defend its territorial waters in the Gulf, the analyst said.
Rahim-Safavi said the regular army would still be in charge of the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Oman. The IRNA report did not elaborate on what practical impact Khamenei's order would have.
Iran has dismissed reports of possible U.S. or Israeli plans to strike Iran, but says it would respond by attacking U.S. interests and Israel if any such assault was made.
(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Edmund Blair; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Richard Balmforth)