TEHRAN Iran has launched a submarine production line to ensure its forces are equipped to maintain security in the vital oil shipping route, the Strait of Hormuz waterway, the defense minister said on Monday.
Iran, embroiled in a standoff with the West over its nuclear ambitions, has said it could respond to any military attack by closing the strait at the southern end of the Gulf through which about 40 percent of the world's traded oil passes.
The United States, whose navy Fifth Fleet is based in the Gulf state of Bahrain, has vowed to keep shipping lanes opened.
The West accuses Tehran of seeking to build nuclear warheads but Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, insists its aim is to master technology to make electricity. Washington has not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to end the row.
Iran's armed forces "have been the protector of the security of the strategic Strait of Hormuz and regards the security of this waterway as vital for itself and the countries of the region," Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said.
Najjar, whose remarks were carried by Iran's ISNA news agency, was speaking at the inauguration of a submarine production line. The agency said it was for a "semi-heavy" class of submarine called Qaim but did not give details.
The agency said the submarine could "carry and fire various kinds of torpedoes and subsurface missiles, as well as transport special operations personnel". He said Iran had invested in domestic production to meet its security aims along its coast.
Iran's state-owned Press TV website quoted Iranian Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari last week saying a new submarine using domestic technology had been added to Iran's fleet. But the report did not give details.
Military experts say Iran rarely reveals enough detail about its new military equipment to determine its efficacy but say the Islamic Republic, despite having much less fire-power than U.S. forces, could still cause havoc in Gulf if it was pushed.
In 2005, Iran said it had launched a production line for midget submarines that experts said would most likely be used for troop transport in amphibious operations.
The experts say Iran's navy has three Russian Kilo class submarines and other smaller submersibles, including the Qadir. Press TV said Iran also operated a submersible called the Nahang, a word meaning whale.
(Writing by Edmund Blair, editing by Hashem Kalantari and Mary Gabriel)