Iran has issued a blunt warning that it would close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about one-fifth of all of the crude oil traded world-wide passes if the United States and its allies go ahead with new sanctions on Iran's petroleum exports.
The threat by the country's military leaders came as Iran had just finished ambitious naval exercises near the Strait. It was the most aggressive statement made by Iran to the ongoing series of U.N. sanctions that have damaged its economy.
"We recommend to the American warship that passed through the Strait of Hormuz and went to the Gulf of Oman, not to return to the Persian Gulf," said Maj. Gen. Ataollah Salehi, the commander in chief of the Iranian army, as reported by the country's official news agency, IRNA. The Islamic Republic of Iran will not repeat this warning," the statement concluded.
If Iran were to carry out its threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz by means of mining, air strikes or sabotage, the impact on oil prices would be immediate. Analysts say the price of oil would start to soar and could rise 50 percent or more within days.
Energy analysts say that even a partial blockage of the Strait of Hormuz could raise the world price of oil within days by $50 a barrel or more. That would push the price of a gallon of regular gasoline to well over $4 a gallon.
United States officials have dismissed Iran's threats, saying the Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in nearby Bahrein, stands ready to defend the shipping lanes, and if necessary, retaliate militarily against Iran.
A spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department, Cmdr. Bill Speaks said that "the deployment of U.S. assets in the Persian Gulf will continue, as it has for decades."
Tensions Rise in Conflict over Oil and Nuclear Policy
European nations are planning an embargo against Iranian oil to pressure its leaders to abandon its nuclear missile program. They and the United States have thus far not succeeded, because the Iranians claim their focus is on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
A decision on the oil embargo will be made at a European summit meeting on Jan. 30. Putting one in place will take longer, because several nations have existing oil contracts with Iran.
While both sides have become more combative the past year, there is a possibility that either the U.S., Iran or both may make missteps that can lead to military incidents or full-scale war.
The emergence of a $4 a gallon for gas may so enrage Americans and people around the world as to trigger a demand for military action against Iran.