Second warning: Iran says US warships in Gulf spawn ‘turbulence’
Iran renewed on Wednesday its warning to America against keeping a US naval presence in the oil-rich Gulf, underlining a threat that Washington has dismissed as a sign of "weakness" from Tehran.
Meanwhile, diplomats said the European Union was on target to impose a threatened embargo on oil imports from Iran, with France saying it could come by the end of January.
"The presence of forces from beyond the (Gulf) region has no result but turbulence. We have said the presence of forces from beyond the region in the Persian Gulf is not needed and is harmful," Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi said, according to state television's website.
"The long-term presence of the United States in the region increases insecurity and the possibility of tensions and of confrontation," the deputy chief of Iran's forces, Masoud Jazayeri, said, according to the Revolutionary Guards website.
"As a result ... the United States must leave the region," Jazayeri said.
Jazayeri noted the exit of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis from the Gulf last week and said: "Since you've gone, don't come back, otherwise you'll be responsible for any problems."
The comments echoed a Tuesday warning that Iran would unleash its "full force" if a US carrier is redeployed to the Gulf.
"We don't have the intention of repeating our warning, and we warn only once," Brigadier General Ataollah Salehi, the armed forces chief, said as he told Washington to keep its carrier away.
The White House on Tuesday brushed off the warning, saying it "reflects the fact that Iran is in a position of weakness" as it struggles under international sanctions.
The US Defence Department said it would not alter its deployment of warships to the Gulf.
Iran has just finished 10 days of naval exercises near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, at the entrance of the Gulf, meant to show it was capable of controlling the channel and closing it if necessary. Twenty percent of the world's oil ships through the strait.
The exercises climaxed on Monday with the test-firing of three types of anti-warship missile.
The head of Iran's parliamentary national security and foreign policy commission, Aladdin Borujerdi, was quoted by the Fars news agency saying the US description of Iran being weak "is a completely illogical stance."
He added: "The US talks about sanctioning our oil but they should know that if Iran's oil exports from the Persian Gulf are sanctioned, then no one will have the right to export oil through the Strait of Hormuz."
The developments helped send oil prices soaring, though they pulled back a little on Wednesday.
New York's main contract, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) for delivery in February, spiked to $103.74, a level last touched on May 11. The contract fell back to $102.61, down 35 cents from Tuesday's closing level.
Brent North Sea crude for February jumped to $113.97 per barrel -- its highest level since November 14. It later stood at $112.82, up 69 cents from Tuesday.
"The situation with Iran remains worrisome," said Nick Trevethan, a senior commodities strategist at ANZ Research in Asia.
"The consequences of any military action in the Middle East will be enormous. A spike in crude prices will kill off any recovery in the US."
In Brussels, diplomats said EU governments had reached a preliminary agreement on an oil embargo against Iran and are now debating when it should come into force.
"There is an agreement in principle to forge ahead" with an embargo, a diplomat said, but added "there is still a lot of work" to agree on the timing of its implementation for a meeting of foreign ministers on January 30.
Speaking of that meeting, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in Lisbon: "It's at this occasion I hope that we can adopt this embargo on Iranian oil exports."
The US Defence Department said it would continue the rotation of its 11 aircraft carriers to the Gulf to support regional military operations and keep the Strait of Hormuz open.
"We are committed to protecting maritime freedoms that are the basis for global prosperity; this is one of the main reasons our military forces operate in the region," it said in a statement.
In other developments, the US Treasury said Secretary Timothy Geithner will travel to China and Japan next week to discuss tougher sanctions against Iran, hours after China said it opposed unilateral US measures.
The increasingly tense situation in the Gulf came as Iran struggled with turmoil on its domestic currency market.
Foreign exchange shops were shuttered on Wednesday as traders refused to comply with a central bank order putting an artificial cap on the value of the dollar against the Iranian rial, which has come under intense pressure.
The central bank also cut in half, to $1,000, the amount of dollars travellers flying abroad could buy.
Iranian authorities were trying to shore up their currency following its slide to a record low on Monday days after Washington enacted new sanctions targeting Iran's central bank.
The United States and other Western nations have imposed sanctions over Tehran's controversial nuclear programme, which they believe is being used to develop atomic weapons.
Iran has repeatedly denied that allegation, saying the programme is purely for energy and medical uses.