The U.S. Navy and its Gulf allies will not allow Iran to seal off the strategic Strait of Hormuz if the country is attacked, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf said Wednesday.
The warning comes as Iran's oil minister vows that any attack on his country by the United States or Israel would provoke an unimaginably fierce response.
The announcement by Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff, commander of the 5th Fleet, came as he was holding talks with naval commanders of Gulf countries at a conference in the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi. The one-day meeting was to focus on the region's maritime and trade-route security and the threat of terrorism.
The 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain, across the Gulf from Iran. Cosgriff said that if Iran choked off the Strait of Hormuz, it would be "saying to the world that 40 percent of oil is now held hostage by a single country."
"We will not allow Iran to close it," he told reporters.
Cosgriff's comments follow Iranian threats that it could seal off the key passageway in case of a Western attack on Tehran. But Cosgriff said that if Iran moved to choke off Hormuz, the "international community would find its voice rapidly" against Iran.
Gholam Hossein Nozari, Iran's oil minister, has threatened that military moves against Tehran would further roil already volatile oil markets that are seeing price records set almost daily.
Earlier this week, Cosgriff said in Bahrain that such an Iranian move would be viewed as an act of war.
Cosgriff said that out of 60 percent of known world oil reserves in the Gulf, a third are shipped by sea. Twenty-five million barrels of oil pass through Hormuz every day — the equivalent of about $3 billion, he said.
Tension has been high between Iran and the West over accusations that Tehran is supporting Shiite militias in Iraq and using its nuclear program as cover for weapons development. Iran has repeatedly denied both claims.
The narrow Strait of Hormuz is particularly sensitive and has been the scene of close encounters between U.S. and Iranian sailors.
In a Jan. 6 incident, five small Iranian high-speed boats charged U.S. warships and threatened to blow up the convoy. In mid December, a U.S. ship fired a warning shot at a small Iranian boat that came too close, causing the Iranians to pull back.
Senior U.S. military officials have warned Iran about the risk of triggering an unintended conflict if its boats continue to harass American ships in the Gulf.
The U.S. military has been wary of small boats operating near its ships since an explosive-laden vessel rammed the USS Cole as it refueled in a Yemeni harbor in 2000, killing 17 sailors.
The British also tangled with Iranians in the Gulf last year when Iran seized 15 sailors and marines while they were searching a merchant ship off the coast of Iraq. Iran released the hostages after almost two weeks.
Cosgriff said the U.S. Navy usually keeps in this area some three dozen warships and auxiliary ships and didn't rule out the possibility of more close encounters with the Iranians.
"I am concerned about the ability of that country to control its forces or the Republican Guards," he said, referring to Iran's paramilitary force. "This is not the time to engage in irresponsible behavior. Every U.S. captain is fully ready to defend his or her ship."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.