“We warn this ship, which is considered a threat to us, not to come back, and we do not repeat our words twice,” Salehi said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.
The Obama administration brushed aside the threat, but the increasingly bellicose tone — coupled with new economic sanctions on Iran expected to take effect in the coming weeks — helped cause the price of oil to jump more than 4 percent during a day of upbeat economic news. Gold markets closed at their highest level in 10 weeks.
The threat against U.S. ships was the latest in a series of aggressive moves by Iran, which within a week has tested new missiles, boasted of breakthroughs in nuclear technology and vowed to shut down shipping in the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for Western sanctions over its nuclear program.
U.S. officials attributed Tuesday’s harsh language to Iran’s growing frustration over its faltering economy, which they say is suffering under the weight of several rounds of Western sanctions adopted in the past three years.
Rial at unprecedented lows
The Iranian currency, the rial, slipped to unprecedented lows against the dollar Tuesday, prompting the Central Bank of Iran to flood the local market with dollars. Currency traders have been dumping the rial in advance of even tougher sanctions, including measures signed by President Obama on Saturday targeting the central bank itself.
In addition, the European Union is expected to approve new sanctions at a meeting Jan. 30, including curbs on imports of Iran’s main export commodity, petroleum.
“Frankly, we see these threats from Tehran as just increasing evidence that the international pressure is beginning to bite there,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday. She said Iranian officials were “trying to divert the attention of their own public from the difficulties inside Iran, including the economic difficulties as a result of the sanctions.”
Iranian warnings Tuesday were directed specifically at the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, which departed the Persian Gulf with its battle group last week in advance of a 10-day military exercise by Iran. Salehi, the Iranian general, boasted that aircraft and drones had shadowed the warship as it left the region and that Iran was prepared to block its return. The Stennis is based at U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in nearby Bahrain.
U.S. officials and military analysts dismissed the threat as a bluff, noting Iran’s reputation for empty rhetorical threats. A Pentagon spokesman said the Navy would continue to deploy its ships in the gulf “as it has for decades.”