July 3, 2006

Navy pledges to safeguard Hormuz Strait

By Stefano Ambrogi

LONDON (Reuters) - The United States would ensure the free
flow of oil and trade through the Strait of Hormuz if passage
was threatened, its top navy commander in the Gulf told Reuters
on Monday.

Iran has a commanding position on the Strait of Hormuz, a
strategic channel at the mouth of the Gulf that is a conduit
for close to two-fifths of globally traded oil.

"What you are looking for here is confidence and relying on
us to provide clearance of the straits, to ensure the strait
remains free," Vice Admiral Patrick M. Walsh, in charge of U.S.
Naval Forces Central Command, said in an interview.

"I can offer you our unequivocal commitment that that is
our goal, that that's our job," he said, speaking by telephone
from Manama, Bahrain.

Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned last
month that oil exports in the Gulf could be jeopardized if
Washington made a "wrong move" against Tehran were the dispute
over Tehran's nuclear ambitions to escalate.

"The point here is that we do look at the statements that
come out of Iran, but have a lot of faith in national and
international relationships to work this problem out through
diplomatic channels," Walsh said.


Any disruption to oil flows through the straits would
likely send crude prices, already near a record high of $75.35
a barrel, through the roof and strain the world market to
breaking point.

The U.S. Navy was alert to that scenario, said Walsh, who
is also head of the Fifth Fleet.

"It would be fair to say that we factor in the potential
for the collapse of world markets when we look at the role we
play," he said.

But with around 80 to 90 percent of export earnings derived
from oil sales, Tehran has much to lose itself.

"It's an interesting contradiction that they would hurt
themselves," Walsh said.

He said Iran continued to exercise its naval capability
regularly -- most recently between March 31 and April 6 dubbed
the Great Prophet Manoeuvres -- but added Tehran had not been
aggressive in any way.

"We watch them very closely and they watch us very closely,
but I tell you we have not had any provocations at sea, and if
we had you would have heard about it," he said.

"We continue to have freedom of access and freedom of
navigation for all of our ships. Our ability to get in and out
of the strait has not been restricted," he added.

He said U.S. forces would need to concentrate more on
anti-submarine warfare in the future to counter any threat.

Military analysts have speculated that if Iran were
cornered it might attempt to mine the Strait of Hormuz and
wider Gulf region.

But Walsh said that would most certainly bring a very swift
and strong international response.

"I would find it absolutely suicidal (for Iran) to do that
-- that would cause more harm to Iran than they could realize.
It would mobilize the entire global community."

For a factbox on the Straits of Hormuz security issues
click on.