TEHRAN Iran will target any country used as a launchpad for attacks against its soil, the deputy Revolutionary Guards commander said, expanding Tehran's range of threats in an increasingly volatile stand-off with world powers over its nuclear ambitions.
Last week, Iran's supreme clerical leader threatened reprisals for the West's new ban on Iranian oil exports and the U.S. defense secretary was quoted as saying Israel was likely to bomb Iran within months to stop it assembling nuclear weapons.
Although broadened and sharpened financial sanctions have begun to inflict serious economic pain in Iran, its oil minister asserted Saturday it would make no nuclear retreat even if its crude oil exports ground to a halt.
Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy purposes. But its recent shift of uranium enrichment to a mountain bunker possibly impervious to conventional bombing, and refusal to negotiate peaceful guarantees for the program or open up to U.N. nuclear inspectors, have thickened an atmosphere of brewing confrontation, raising fears for Gulf oil supplies.
"Any spot used by the enemy for hostile operations against Iran will be subjected to retaliatory aggression by our armed forces," Hossein Salami, deputy head of the elite Revolutionary Guards, told the semi-official Fars news agency Sunday.
The Guards began two days of military maneuvers in southern Iran Saturday in another show of force for Iran's adversaries associated with tensions over its disputed nuclear program.
Sunday Israel appointed a new air force chief who last month, in his position as top military planner, warned publicly that Israel could not deal a knock-out blow to its enemies, including Iran, in any regional conflict.
The United States and Israel, Iran's arch-enemies, have not ruled out a military strike on Tehran if diplomacy fails to resolve the nuclear stalemate. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to visit Washington next month, his office said Sunday, and Israeli political sources said he is likely to meet U.S. President Barack Obama while there.
Iran's Salami did not identify which countries he meant as possible hosts for military action against it.
The six, U.S.-allied Arab states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, situated on the other side of the vital oil exporting waterway from Iran, have said they would not allow their territories to be used for attacks on the Islamic Republic.
But analysts say that if Iran retaliated for an attack launched from outside the region by targeting U.S. facilities in Gulf Arab states, Washington might pressure the host nations to permit those bases to hit back, arguing they should have the right to defend themselves.
The Gulf states that host U.S. military facilities are Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.
THREAT TO SHUT VITAL OIL CHANNEL
Iran has warned its response to any such strike will be "painful," threatening to target Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf, along with closing the Strait of Hormuz used by one third of the world's seaborne oil traffic.
Betraying nervousness about possible blowback from any military strike on Iran, two of its neighbors - Qatar and Turkey - urged the West Sunday to make greater efforts to negotiate a solution to the nuclear row.
Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference attended by top world policymakers, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said an attack would be a "disaster" and the dispute over Iran's nuclear program could be ended very rapidly.
"If there is strong political will and mutual confidence being established, this issue could be resolved in a few days," he said. "The technical disputes are not so big. The problem is mutual confidence and strong political will."
He added: "A military option will create a disaster in our region. So before that disaster, everybody must be serious in negotiations. We hope soon both sides will meet again but this time there will be a complete result."
Turkey was the venue of the last talks between Western powers and Iran a year ago which ended in stalemate because participants could not even agree on an agenda.
Qatari Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Mohamed al-Attiyah said an attack "is not a solution, and tightening the embargo on Iran will make the scenario worse.
"I believe that with our allies and friends in the West we should open a serious dialogue with the Iranians to get out of this dilemma. This is what we feel in our region."
Tehran has warned several times it may seal off the Strait of Hormuz, throttling the supply of Gulf crude and gas, if attacked or if sanctions mean it cannot export its oil.
A military strike on Iran and Iran's response, which might include an attack on the oilfields of No. 1 exporter Saudi Arabia, would send oil prices soaring, which could seriously harm the global economy
(Additional reporting by William Maclean in Munich and Michael Holden in London; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Sophie Hares)