"This move has a message," says Admiral Afshin Rezayee Haddad, hinting at Iran's efforts to respond to Washington's beefed up naval presence in the Persian Gulf • PM Benjamin Netanyahu: Easing of sanctions has not led to a change in Iran's behavior.
Dan Lavie, Israel Hayom Staff and News Agencies
The 30-year-old Iranian support ship "Kharg" is headed toward U.S. maritime borders
Photo credit: AFP
An Iranian naval officer said a number of warships had been ordered to approach U.S. maritime borders as a response to the stationing of U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf, Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency reported on Saturday.
"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 towards 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.
By Saturday evening, however, the Iranian threats were exposed as hollow after news portal Russia Today reported the Islamic republic had only dispatched two old ships. One is frigate named the "Sabalan" and the other is an operational support vessel named "Kharg." Both are OI-class ships built in Britain. The Kharg was delivered to Iran 30 years ago, in 1984.
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. But the official added that "ships are free to operate in international waters."
The United States and its allies regularly stage naval exercises in the Persian Gulf, saying they want to ensure freedom of navigation in the waterway through which 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil exports passes.
U.S. military facilities in the region include a base for its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.
Iran sees the Persian Gulf as its own backyard and believes it has a legitimate interest in expanding its influence there.
In September 2012, Haddad had reiterated his country's intentions of sending ships toward the U.S. coast to counter the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf.
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.
Iran's defiant stance toward America did not end at sea, as the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khemenei said American officials are "lying" when they say they are not seeking regime change in Iran.
"American officials tell our authorities at talks that they are not after regime change in Iran. They are lying because they won't hesitate a moment if they had the ability to do so," he said.
He said "tactics and methods can be changed but principles must remain rock solid."
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also urged officials not to pin hopes for economic recovery on sanctions relief.
"The only solution to the country's economic problems is to employ [Iran's] infinite domestic capacities, not to pin hopes on the lifting of sanctions. No expectations from the enemy," Khamenei told army officers in Tehran.
Iran's top nuclear official, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Saturday that Iran had agreed to voluntarily limit its uranium enrichment to 5%, instead of 20%.
"Centrifuges that were used for the production of 20%, they will be used now for producing 5% enriched uranium," the Salehi said, adding that if the U.S. Congress decides to impose further sanctions, then Iran could go back to enriching uranium to 20% levels "within hours."
Salehi, meanwhile, signaled an apparent readiness for more concessions over Iran's nuclear program, this time over its heavy-water reactor at Arak.
The semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted Salehi as saying that Tehran could modify the reactor's design so it would produce less plutonium to reduce concerns by the West.
"We are able to apply changes in the design of the reactor to produce less plutonium, to reduce concerns in this regard," Salehi said.
Iran also signaled it will cooperate with U.N. experts visiting the country over the weekend to investigate alleged nuclear weapons activity. As the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency team arrived in Tehran on Friday, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency cited Iranian atomic energy organization spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi as saying his country was ready to answer all questions raised by the U.N. agency.
Nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West are scheduled to resume in a week and a half in Vienna, Austria.
Meanwhile, at Sunday's cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the easing of sanctions of Iran has not prompted a change of behavior by Iran.
"The international easing of the sanctions against Iran have not led Iran to moderate its international aggression, the complete opposite has occurred," Netanyahu said. "The Iranian foreign minister recently met with the head of Islamic Jihad, Iran is continuing to supply terrorist organizations with deadly weapons, Iran continues to be complicit in massacres in Syria and to all this may be added the leader of Iran's crude and sharp attack against the U.S., alongside sending warships to the Atlantic Ocean. What is happening here is that the international community has reduced the sanctions on Iran and Iran is stepping up its international aggression. This is the real result of the steps up until now."