Iran has begun military exercises, planned weeks in advance, in the narrow Strait of Hormuz. The exercises come after the West sent more warships to the region amid on-going tensions over Iran's nuclear program.
The hard-line Iranian Revolutionary Guards began naval maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday, more than a week after the western Allies dispatched more warships to the strategically critical choke point in the Persian Gulf.
Iran plans to conduct war games in the strait for the next month, coming at a time of already heightened tension with the US and its European allies over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. At the end of January, Washington deployed the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to the region, which was accompanied by two British and French warships.
Tehranhas threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the route for one-fifth of the world's crude oil, in response to EU and US sanctions against its oil exports. Washington has vowed to keep the Persian Gulf open to international trade.
Iran's oil minister said on Saturday that his country would retaliate against "some" European countries for the EU oil embargo. The EU accounted for 25 percent of Iranian crude oil sales in the third quarter of 2011.
"Our oil exports will certainly be cut to some European countries," said Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi, according to the Fars news agency. "We will decide about other European countries later."
Italy, Greece and Spain - currently at the center of the eurozone's economic crisis - are major European importers of Iranian oil. They have until July to find alternative oil sources.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Saturday that the EU's decision to expand its sanctions against Tehran makes "very clear that Europe is not willing to allow for a nuclear armed Iran."
Westerwelle, sitting on a panel with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Munich Security Conference, said that Europe "is convinced a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a danger to the security of that region, but is a danger to the whole world."
On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told Reuters news agency that Western sanctions had to be imposed quickly and decisively, warning that "weeks and months can make a difference."
Ayalon also expressed concern that Iran may be beefing up its facilities to protect its nuclear program.
"We see them (Iran) also trying to expedite hardening their installations so they will reach an immunity zone, where some action may not be as effective, and this is why the time is so much of the essence," he said.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is concerned that Israel could launch a military strike on Iran in the next few months.
Amid the speculation that Israel may be preparing for such a strike, German Foreign Minister Westerwelle said that Europe's goal is to avoid a military conflict and is "warning against escalation."
slk/acb (AP, Reuters)