Iran fires warning at Saudi Arabia over oil output
Iran on Tuesday warned Saudi Arabia to rethink plans to compensate for Iranian oil exports cut by sanctions, and boosted security for its targeted nuclear workers as it dug in under its showdown with the West.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told Riyadh to "reflect" on a vow to open its oil taps to make up for an imposed reduction in Iran's oil sales.
He said such a position was viewed as "not friendly."
At the same time, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered security stepped up for all of Iran's nuclear workers following the assassination last week of a key scientist, First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said.
The moves signalled a hardening of Iran's stance as it confronted intense pressure over its controversial nuclear programme through Western sanctions impacting its economy, and a covert campaign including murder and sabotage.
Already, the Islamic republic has started new uranium enrichment operations at a heavily defended bunker southwest of Tehran, and it is preparing to hold more navy war games in the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Gulf, a strategic chokepoint for much of the Middle East's oil.
The tensions have raised the spectre of possible military action.
Speculation has increased of Israeli air strikes against Iranian nuclear sites, and Washington has deployed warships near the Strait of Hormuz to ensure the channel stays open.
Gestures to defuse the tensions have so far made little progress.
Iran says it is now willing to restart talks with world powers on its nuclear activities that collapsed a year ago, but it has not formally responded to a EU letter offering a resumption of the negotiations.
The US government in recent days sent a letter to Iran's leaders, with whom they have had no direct contact in more than three decades.
But Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, quoted by ISNA news agency, said it contained "nothing new".
His spokesman added that Iran would only reply to it "if it's deemed necessary".
The International Atomic Energy Agency is planning on sending a high-level delegation to Iran within weeks to discuss suspicions over the nuclear activities. Western diplomats at IAEA headquarters said the visit should occur on January 28.
But Iran's foreign ministry said that no date has yet been fixed, and that it would take place "in the near future".
Relations between the West and Iran, long dogged by mutual mistrust, have sunk to a dangerous low in the past three months because of a succession of developments.
They include: US allegations of an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington; the storming of the British embassy in Tehran by a pro-regime mob; Iran's capture of a CIA drone; and Iranian threats against the US navy in the Gulf.
Other complications this month have come in the form of a death sentence against an American-Iranian former Marine arrested in Tehran on suspicion of spying for the CIA, and a dramatic decline in the value of Iran's currency following new US sanctions.
There is potential for further degradation, however.
The European Union is poised to announce additional sanctions next week said to include a ban on Iranian oil imports. That would be a bad blow for Iran as the EU is the second-biggest destination for its oil after China.
The United States is also intent on putting teeth into its new sanctions, dispatching officials to several countries to convince them to cut Iranian oil imports despite the fragility of the global economy.
Pre-election rhetoric in three key countries -- Iran, the United States and France -- is also limiting leaders' ability to soften their respective positions as the showdown rumbles on.