TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard began military exercises Saturday in the country's south, the latest show of force after threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for tougher Western sanctions.
Plans for new Iranian naval games in the Persian Gulf off the country's southern coast have been in the works for weeks. State media announced new maneuvers in southern Iran involving ground forces, but it was not immediately clear whether they were part of the planned naval training missions scheduled for this month or a separate operation.
The latest military maneuvers got under way following stern warnings by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about any possible U.S. or Israeli attacks against Tehran's nuclear facilities. It also comes after Western forces boosted their naval presence in the Gulf led by the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Iran officials and lawmakers have repeatedly said that their country would close the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in retaliation for sanctions that affect Iran's oil exports. They have as yet made no attempts to disrupt shipping through the waterway, the route for one-fifth of the world's crude oil, and the U.S. and allies have said they would respond swiftly to any attempts at a blockade.
Last month, Iran's navy wrapped up 10 days of exercises in the Gulf, but the Revolutionary Guard -- which is directly under control of the supreme leader -- represents a significantly stronger military force and controls key programs such as missile development. Iranian state media announced the new maneuvers, but gave no further details.
Khamenei, in a speech nationally broadcast on Friday, staked out a hard line after suggestions by Israel that military strikes are an increasing possibility if sanctions fail to rein in the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
He pledged to aid any nation or group that challenges Israel and said any military strikes would damage U.S. interests in the Middle East "10 times" more than they would hurt Iran. The comments also may signal that Tehran's proxy forces -- led by Lebanon's Islamic militant group Hezbollah -- could be given the green light to revive attacks on Israel as the showdown between the archfoes intensifies.
The West and its allies fear Iran could use its uranium enrichment labs -- which make nuclear fuel -- to eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Israel has so far publicly backed the efforts by the U.S. and European Union for tougher sanctions that target Iran's crucial oil exports. But Israeli leaders have urged even harsher measures and warn that military action remains a clear option despite Western appeals to allow time for the economic pressures and isolation to bear down on Iran.
Iran's oil minister repeated claims that an EU oil embargo will not cripple Iran's economy, claiming Saturday that the country already has identified new customers to replace the loss in European sales that accounted for about 18 percent of Iran's exports.
Rostam Qassemi also reinforced Iran's warning to Saudi Arabia and other fellow OPEC members against boosting production to offset any potential drop in Tehran's crude exports, saying the cartel should not be used as a political weapon against a member state.
Although Israel has raised the strongest hints that it is likely to start a military campaign, Khamenei reserved some of his strongest comments for Israel's key U.S. ally.
"A war itself will damage the U.S. 10 times" more in the region, said Khamenei.
Khamenei claimed Iran, however, could only emerge stronger. "Iran will not withdraw. Then what happens?" asked Khamenei. "In conclusion, the West's hegemony and threats will be discredited" in the Middle East. "The hegemony of Iran will be promoted. In fact, this will be in our service."
On Thursday, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, suggested the world is increasingly ready to consider a military strike if sanctions fail. The head of the country's strategic affairs ministry, Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, also suggested Iran's main military installations are still vulnerable to airstrikes -- even as Iran starts up a new uranium enrichment facility deep in a mountainside bunker south of Tehran.
Yaalon's comments appear to reinforce earlier suggestions by other Israel officials that the window for a possible attack is closing and Israel would need to strike by summer to inflict significant setbacks on Iran's nuclear facilities. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under standing guidelines.
At Ramstein Air Base in Germany, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said sanctions remain the best approach to pressure Iran. But he told U.S. airmen Friday that Washington keeps "all options on the table and would be prepared to respond if we have to."
Khamenei answered by repeating Iran's declarations that it will never roll back its nuclear program, which he had earlier said was now part of the country's "identity" and a cornerstone of its technological endeavors. On Friday, Iran said it successfully sent a small satellite into orbit in the third such launch in recent years, state media reported.
"From now on, in any place, if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will endorse and we will help. We have no fear expressing this," said Khamenei, using the phrase widely used by Iran's leader to describe Israel.