Iran says warships will approach US maritime border

Iranian news agency quotes commander as saying the move is a response to US exercises in the Gulf

In this 2012 file photo, Iranian navy vessels are seen in Strait of Hormuz.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AFP/Getty Images

An Iranian naval officer said a number of warships have been ordered to approach U.S. maritime borders as a response to the stationing of American vessels in the Gulf, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

The move could be seen as an attempt by the government to appease hard-liners as the country tries to forge closer diplomatic ties with the United States and the West, analysts said. Iran is currently meeting with the U.N. nuclear agency to discuss the country's nuclear program.

"Iran's military fleet is approaching the United States' maritime borders, and this move has a message," the agency quoted Admiral Afshin Rezayee Haddad as saying.

Haddad, described as commander of the Iranian navy's northern fleet, said the vessels had started their voyage toward the Atlantic Ocean via "waters near South Africa," Fars reported.

Fars said the plan was part of "Iran's response to Washington's beefed up naval presence in the Persian Gulf."

The Fars report, which carried no details of the vessels, could not be confirmed independently.

In Washington, a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, cast doubt on any claims that the Iranian ships were approaching U.S. maritime borders. The official added that "ships are free to operate in international waters."

The U.S. and its allies routinely stage naval exercises in the Gulf, saying they want to ensure freedom of navigation in the waterway through which 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil exports pass.

U.S. military facilities in the region include a base for its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.

Iran sees the Gulf as its own backyard, and believes it has a legitimate interest in expanding its influence there.

Iranian officials have often said Iran could block the Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Gulf, if the country came under military attack over its disputed nuclear program. The Western war games are widely seen in the region as an attempt to deter any such move.

Fars said the Iranian navy had been developing its presence in international waters since 2010, regularly launching vessels in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden to protect Iranian ships from Somali pirates operating in the area.

Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, said President Hassan Rouhani could be trying to woo right-wing Iranian politicians by showing a strong military presence.

The strategy might be part of the "Iranian ruling regime trying to save face as they forge ahead with nuclear negotiations," he said.

Hard-line Iranian politicians have accused the president of ceding too much to Western demands by halting a scheduled missile exercise, the state news agency said Sunday. Conservative politicians have long taken issue with Rouhani's diplomatic strategy.

IRNA reported that 24 members of parliament issued a statement saying the Supreme National Security Council, headed by the president, stopped the annual test and did not approve its budget.

Iran also agreed on Sunday with the International Atomic Energy Agency to take more steps to safeguard and enhance the transparency of its nuclear program. It was not immediately clear what those steps would be.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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