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04:55 - Source: CNN

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Iran's defense minister speaks out over U.S. warship

The Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz are critical areas

The United States has had forces in the Persian Gulf for decades

CNN  — 

Another top Iranian official weighed in Wednesday about the tensions brewing between his country and the United States, the latest salvo in the war of words over the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.

“We have always stated that there is no need for the forces belonging to the countries beyond this region to have a presence in the Persian Gulf,” Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi said Wednesday, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported. “Their presence does nothing but create mayhem, and we never wanted them to be present in the Persian Gulf.”

His statement is the latest rhetoric stemming from Iran’s threat last week to close the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. The strait, the only outlet from the Persian Gulf, is a critical shipping lane, with 17 million barrels of oil per day passing through in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Iran threatened to block the strait if sanctions were imposed on its oil exports. France, Britain and Germany have proposed sanctions to punish Iran’s lack of cooperation on its nuclear program.

Cmdr. Amy Derrick Frost, spokeswoman for the U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, responded at the time, “Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated.”

Answering a reporter’s question Wednesday about the closing of the strait, Vahidi said, “The security of the Strait of Hormuz is one of the issues that Iran is concerned with, and the Islamic Republic has been maintaining this security.”

He emphasized that Iran is a regional power and will always protect the strait.

“Of course the enemies try to exaggerate this issue in order to secure weapons sales to the countries of this region,” he said.

Vahidi said a number of observers from other countries had been present during Iran’s recent military exercises in and around the strait, and suggested that Iran could hold joint maneuvers with neighboring countries, Fars said.

Iran warned the United States on Tuesday not to return a U.S. aircraft carrier group “to the Persian Gulf region.”

Maj. Gen. Ataollah Salehi, commander of Iran’s army, said his country “will not adopt any irrational move, but it is ready to severely react against any threat,” the Islamic Republic News Agency said.

U.S. officials rejected the warning.

The commander spoke at the Port of Chabahar in southern Iran, as forces held a military parade the day after Iran ended naval drills in the region, IRNA reported.

The USS John C. Stennis, part of the U.S. Navy’s fleet in the region, moved last week from the Persian Gulf into the North Arabian Sea as part of what the 5th Fleet called a preplanned transit.

Iran said the ship’s movement in relation to Iran’s naval exercises showed that the United States “understood” that Iran’s maneuvers were not “suicidal or aggressive,” but rather about Iran protecting its own “interests and power.”

But Western diplomats last week described the naval drills – which, according to Iranian officials, included test-firing missiles – as further evidence of Iran’s volatile behavior.

Iran’s naval exercises began in the strait and also included waters in the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean up to the Gulf of Aden, according to IRNA.

After Tuesday’s warning from Iran, a Pentagon spokesman issued a statement saying “deployment of U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf region will continue as it has for decades.”

The United States has had forces in the Persian Gulf since World War II. Its ships sail through the Persian Gulf frequently, many on their way to and from the 5th Fleet’s headquarters in Bahrain. The 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility covers about 2.5 million square miles, including the Persian Gulf, which the Navy also refers to as the Arabian Gulf; the Red Sea; the Gulf of Oman; and parts of the Indian Ocean.