Pentagon pushes back on Iranian warnings on U.S. aircraft carrier

The Pentagon on Tuesday pushed back on Iranian warnings against returning a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.

"The deployment of U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf region will continue as it has for decades," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said in a statement sent to Yahoo News Tuesday. "These are regularly scheduled movements in accordance with our longstanding commitments to the security and stability of the region and in support of ongoing operations."

"The U.S. Navy operates under international maritime conventions to maintain a constant state of high vigilance in order to ensure the continued, safe flow of maritime traffic in waterways critical to global commerce," Little's statement continued. "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."

The Pentagon statement came in response to a comment from Iran's army chief Ataolla Salehi Tuesday, which asserted that Iranian military exercises had prompted a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to vacate the Persian Gulf. Salehi also issued a warning to the United States about any plans for the carrier's return.

"Iran will not repeat its warning ... the enemy's carrier has been moved to the Sea of Oman because of our drill," Iran Army chief Ataollah Salehi said Tuesday, Reuters reported. "I advise, recommend and warn them over the return of this carrier to the Persian Gulf because we are not in the habit of warning more than once."

Salehi didn't name the American naval vessel in question, "but the USS John C. Stennis leads a task force in the region, and the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet website pictured it in the Arabian Sea last week," Reuters reported.

Tensions have been rising between the United States and Iran in recent weeks, as Iranian officials have issued a series of boasts about their military capabilities to control the Strait of Hormuz, a key global energy transport hub. The United States in turn last week announced billions of dollars in weapons sales to American Persian Gulf allies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Analysts say the erratic Iranian threats--sometimes followed by conciliatory statements--are a sign of the Tehran government's rising panic about tightening economic sanctions, including newly passed U.S. sanctions on Iran's Central Bank. President Obama signed a defense authorization bill over the weekend that includes a measure that would penalize foreign companies and countries that work with the Iranian financial institution. The ban would potentially choke off a chief source of Iranian revenues for its oil exports. However, the legislation includes an exemption permitting the president to waive the penalty if he determines that it would cause a spike in energy prices or pose a national security threat.

Meanwhile, Iran's foreign ministry said Tuesday that it plans to attend a meeting with international nuclear negotiators.

Iran is "waiting for unveiling date and venue of talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany," Iran Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the Iran Student News Agency Tuesday.

However, a European Union spokesman told Yahoo News Tuesday that the body had not yet received a formal written response from Iran responding to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton's proposal for a meeting.

Iran last met with members of the so-called P5+1 group--the United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Russia, China and Germany--in Turkey last January, but the meeting made no progress toward a proposal to resolve international concerns over Iran's nuclear program.

Iran's atomic energy agency over the weekend also announced that its scientists had produced the first fuel rod for use by the Tehran Research Reactor, which makes nuclear isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. The assertion--so far unverified by Western officials--is perhaps diplomatically significant, since Iran had previously negotiated with the United States, Russia and France about possibly sending off a significant portion of its stockpiled fissile material in exchange for fuel rods for use by the reactor. Those negotiations collapsed amid a bitter round of mutual recriminations in late 2009. But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly asserted his interest in reviving them, including in discussions with journalists and policy experts in New York during a recent visit to the UN in September.

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