TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard began naval maneuvers Saturday in the latest show of force near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, the critical Gulf oil tanker route that Tehran has threatened to close in retaliation for tougher Western sanctions.
Plans for new Iranian war games in the Gulf have been in the works for weeks. But they got under way following stern warnings by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about any possible U.S. or Israeli attacks against Tehran's nuclear facilities.
The month-long maneuvers also come after Western forces boosted their naval presence in the Gulf led by the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Iran has so far made no attempts to disrupt shipping through the strait, the route for one-fifth the world's crude oil. The U.S. and allies have said they would respond swiftly to any attempts at a blockade.
Last month, Iran's navy wrapped up 10 days of exercises in the Gulf, but the Revolutionary Guard — which is directly under control of the supreme leader — represents a significantly stronger military force and controls key programs such as missile development. Iranian state media announced the new maneuvers, but gave no further details.
Khamenei, in a speech nationally broadcast on Friday, staked out a hard line after suggestions by Israel that military strikes are an increasing possibility if sanctions fail to rein in the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.
He pledged to aid any nation or group that challenges Israel and said any military strikes would damage U.S. interests in the Middle East "10 times" more than they would hurt Iran. The comments also may signal that Tehran's proxy forces — led by Lebanon's Islamic militant group Hezbollah — could be given the green light to revive attacks on Israel as the showdown between the archfoes intensifies.
The West and its allies fear Iran could use its uranium enrichment labs — which make nuclear fuel — to eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Israel has so far publicly backed the efforts by the U.S. and European Union for tougher sanctions that target Iran's crucial oil exports. But Israeli leaders have urged even harsher measures and warn that military action remains a clear option despite Western appeals to allow time for the economic pressures and isolation to bear down on Iran.
Although Israel has raised the strongest hints over a military campaign, Khamenei reserved some of his strongest comments for Israel's key U.S. ally.
"A war itself will damage the U.S. 10 times" more in the region, said Khamenei.
Khamenei claimed Iran would only emerge stronger from a conflict. "Iran will not withdraw. Then what happens?" asked Khamenei. "In conclusion, the West's hegemony and threats will be discredited" in the Middle East. "The hegemony of Iran will be promoted. In fact, this will be in our service."
On Thursday, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, suggested the world is increasingly ready to consider a military strike if sanctions fail. The head of the country's strategic affairs ministry, Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, also suggested Iran's main military installations are still vulnerable to airstrikes — even as Iran starts up a new uranium enrichment facility deep in a mountainside bunker south of Tehran.
Yaalon's comments appear to reinforce earlier suggestions by other Israel officials that the window for a possible attack is closing and Israel would need to strike by summer to inflict significant setbacks on Iran's nuclear facilities. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under standing guidelines.
At Ramstein Air Base in Germany, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said sanctions remain the best approach to pressure Iran. But he told U.S. airmen Friday that Washington keeps "all options on the table and would be prepared to respond if we have to."
Khamenei answered by repeating Iran's declarations that it will never roll back its nuclear program, which he had earlier said was now part of the country's "identity" and a cornerstone of its technological endeavors. On Friday, Iran said it successfully sent a small satellite into orbit in the third such launch in recent years, state media reported.
Khamenei affirmed that Iran had assisted groups such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas — a well-known policy rarely stated explicitly by Iranian leaders — and said that Tehran would assist anyone else who challenges Israel.
"From now on, in any place, if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will endorse and we will help. We have no fear expressing this," said Khamenei, using the phrase widely used by Iran's leader to describe Israel.