TEHRAN // The United States vowed to keep American warships deployed in the Gulf region, despite Iran's army chief warning an American aircraft carrier not to return to the area.
Iranian General Ataollah Salehi, speaking as a 10-day Iranian naval exercise ended near the Strait of Hormuz, told a US aircraft carrier, the USS John C Stennis, not to come back, a move that seemed aimed at further depicting the strait and the Gulf as under Iran's domination.
"We recommend to the American warship that passed through the Strait of Hormuz and went to Gulf of Oman not to return to the Persian Gulf," Gen Salehi said.
In response, Pentagon press secretary George Little said: "The deployment of US military assets in the Persian Gulf region will continue as it has for decades."
Iranian officials have said the naval drill aimed to show Iran could close the vital oil passage, as it has threatened to do if the United States enacts strong new sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme.
A third of the world's tanker-borne oil passes through the strait.
Oil prices rose to more than US$101 (Dh370) a barrel yesterday amid concerns rising tensions between western powers and Iran could disrupt crude oil supplies.
The jump came a day after Iran test-fired a surface-to-surface cruise missile as part of the manoeuvres, prompting Iran's navy chief to boast the strait is "completely under our control".
He said Iran's enemies have understood the message of the naval exercises. "We have no plan to begin any irrational act but we are ready against any threat."
The aircraft carrier and another vessel exited the Gulf through the strait a week ago, after a visit to Dubai's Jebel Ali port, according to the US navy's Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet.
Iran's sabre-rattling over the strait and the Gulf has come in response to US preparations to impose tough new sanctions that would ban dealings with Iran's central bank. That would deeply hurt Iran's oil exports since most countries and companies use the bank to conduct purchases of Iranian crude.
Iran relies on oil revenues for 80 per cent of its budget and a cut-off would be devastating to its already weakening economy.
The US president, Barack Obama, has signed the sanctions into law but has not yet enacted them. The sanctions would be the strongest by the US, aimed at forcing Tehran to back off its nuclear programme, which many in the West say is intended to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran deniesthis, saying its programme is for civilian use.
The US measures are in addition to four sets of UN sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear activities, and the European Union is expected to announce sanctions of its own at the end of January.
But reports say the 27-nation bloc has not reached consensus.
The French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said yesterday his country wants Europe to agree on sanctions similar to those passed in the US. He told a French television station there is "no doubt" Iran plans to build a bomb.
"This is why France, without closing the path of negotiation and dialogue with Iran, wants stricter sanctions," he said. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has also proposed freezing the assets of Iran's central bank and an embargo on exports of Iranian oil, a move also being considered by the European Union.
"The American Congress has backed this idea and President Obama has just signed it into law and we hope that the Europeans, by January 30, take equivalent measures to show our determination," Mr Juppe said.
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said: "This issue about a ban on oil and gas imports is something that we will be looking at and it will be discussed ... at a meeting at the end of January."
In 2010, EU customers accounted for 18 per cent of Iran's oil exports, with most of the rest going to Asia.
Iran and the EU said yesterday they were each waiting on the other to take steps on resuming long-stalled negotiations over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Iran's naval manoeuvres took place over a 2,000km stretch of water beyond the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, as well as parts of the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, according to Iranian officials.
A leading Iranian member of parliament said on Sunday the manoeuvres served as practice for closing the strait if the West enacts sanctions blocking Iranian oil sales. Top Iranian officials made the same threat last week.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse