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Britain may up navy presence near Strait of Hormuz amid tensions

Jan. 19: Fishing boats are seen in front of oil tankers on the Persian Gulf waters, south of the Strait of Hormuz.AP

Britain could send extra military assets to the Strait of Hormuz to deter any attempt by Iran to block Persian Gulf oil tanker traffic, the country's defense secretary said Tuesday, as Tehran insisted a European Union ban on the purchase of its oil would have little sting.

Two British and French warships and the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln had entered the Gulf on Sunday to show Iran they would not tolerate any interference with global shipping, Philip Hammond told reporters.

Iranian leaders have repeated long-standing threats to close off the Strait, which handles a fifth of the world's oil, after the EU imposed the embargo Monday as part of sanctions to pressure Tehran into resuming talks on the country's controversial nuclear program.

Iran summoned the Danish ambassador to Tehran on Tuesday over the EU's oil embargo. Denmark is currently the head of the rotating EU presidency.

"Elements within the European Union, by pursuing the policies of the U.S. and adopting a hostile approach, are seeking to create tensions with the Islamic Republic of Iran," the official IRNA news agency quoted Ali Asghar Khaji, a senior Foreign Ministry official, as saying. He called the EU decision "irrational."

Other Iranian officials argued the sanctions would not work, or could even benefit Iran.

"The oil embargo will lead to higher prices. Europe will be the loser and Iran will earn more because of high prices," Iran's oil ministry spokesman Alireza Nikzad Rahbar told state TV.

During talks in London on Tuesday, Australia said it would also sign up to the embargo -- though acknowledged it currently has negligible oil imports from Iran.

The three warships -- which included Britain's HMS Argyll frigate and France's frigate La Motte Picquet -- that entered the Gulf on Sunday had sent "a clear signal about the resolve of the international community to defend the right of free passage through international waters," Hammond said.

Britain's defense ministry declined to offer specific detail on what assets and personnel are currently in the Persian Gulf, but said it had about 1,500 Navy personnel in the region east of Suez, which includes the Middle East and Indian Ocean.

Four anti-mine vessels are based out of Bahrain, while Britain also has two frigates -- including HMS Argyll -- three support ships, a survey vessel and one hunter-killer nuclear submarine in the region, the ministry said.

In Paris, French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the French warship, which specializes in countering submarine attacks, has since separated from the British and American vessels, but remains on a "presence mission" in the Persian Gulf.

France doesn't have plans to deploy more forces to the zone, said Burkhard, noting that it has a small base in the United Arab Emirates, which currently houses six Rafale warplanes and about 650 troops, including an infantry battalion.

The United States and allies have already warned they would take swift action against any Iranian moves to choke off the 30-mile wide Strait.

Though Hammond did not specify what potential reinforcements Britain could send, the U.K. last year created a Response Force Task Group -- a flexible force drawn from a pool of warships, support vessels, helicopters, marines and a submarine -- that can be deployed at short notice.

Jon Rosamond, editor of Jane's Navy International magazine, said Britain has the HMS Daring, a destroyer with specialist air defense capabilities, already sailing toward Suez to carry out a six-month mission against piracy and drug smuggling. He said it could potentially play a role in countering any threat from Iranian missiles.

HMS Westminster, a frigate used during the Libya campaign last summer, left Portsmouth in southern England on Monday and could reach Hormuz within a week if needed, Rosamond said.

Britain has a number of command personnel based alongside its mine sweepers in Bahrain -- home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet -- and a Royal Air Force base in Cyprus which covers the zone.

At the center of the dispute with Iran is international concern over its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is aimed at providing civilian power. The U.S. and other nations accuse Iran of attempting to build nuclear weapons, and Tehran is now under several rounds of U.N. sanctions.

Australia's foreign minister Kevin Rudd, in London with Australian defense minister Stephen Smith for talks, said his country would join the EU's oil embargo.

"The reason is very clear -- the message needs to be delivered to the people of Iran, the wider political elites of Iran, as well as the government of Iran that their behavior is globally unacceptable," Rudd said.

Iranian lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said Monday that Iran had the right to block Hormuz in retaliation for the oil embargo, according to the semiofficial Mehr news agency.

"In case of threat, the closure of the Strait of Hormuz is one of Iran's rights," Falahatpisheh was quoted as saying.

Some commentators are declaring that Iran should cut the flow of crude even before the new measures go into effect in July, to punish Europe, while others say the embargo is a "gift" that will allow the country to diversity its economy.

"Ineffective Western sanctions are not a threat to us, but an opportunity that has brought a lot of benefits," Iran's intelligence chief intelligence chief Heidar Moslehi said at a gathering in the central city of Isfahan late Monday.

The measures, approved in Brussels by the EU's 27 foreign ministers, include an immediate embargo on new contracts for crude oil and petroleum products. Existing contracts with Iran will be allowed to run until July.

Iran's Oil Ministry said the country can find new markets, though U.S. officials have been pressing Tehran's main Asian oil markets to turn away from Iran.

China -- which counts on Iran as its third-biggest oil supplier -- has rejected sanctions and called for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. South Korea, which relies on Iran for up to 10 percent of its oil supplies, has also been noncommittal on sanctions.

Japan, which imports about 9 percent of its oil from Iran, has not made a decision on whether to reduce its imports. Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told parliament Tuesday that Japan hoped to cooperate with the international community, but stressed the need to keep oil prices stable while making sanctions effective.

Some 80 percent of Iran's foreign revenue comes from oil exports, and analysts say that any sanctions affecting its ability to export oil would hit its economy hard. With about 4 million barrels per day, Iran is the second largest producer in OPEC. It exports about 2 million barrels a day and consumes the rest domestically. The EU makes up 18 percent of Iran's oil exports.