Iran-US tensions flare over sanctions threat, rocket claim

Iran accused the United States of lying Thursday about alleged test-firing of rockets near an American warship and anger rose in Tehran at the spectre of new sanctions from Washington.

Tehran: Iran accused the United States of lying Thursday about alleged test-firing of rockets near an American warship and anger rose in Tehran at the spectre of new sanctions from Washington.

Iran`s Revolutionary Guards denied that its naval forces had been involved in a December 26 incident in which the US said rockets came close to the USS Harry S Truman aircraft carrier in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

The naval unit is responsible for securing Iranian interests in the Strait, a vital waterway for a large proportion of the world`s oil, regularly patrolling the area and conducting exercises.

"The Guards` naval force had no exercise in the past week when the Americans claim that a missile or rocket was fired in the Hormuz Strait area," spokesman General Ramezan Sharif said.

The purported incident comes five months after Iran and world powers led by the US agreed a landmark deal -- yet to be finally implemented -- to limit the Islamic republic`s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.

A US military official said an Iranian vessel had test-fired several rockets near three Western warships including the aircraft carrier. A French frigate and the USS Bulkeley destroyer were also in the area.

Though the rockets were not fired toward any warship, their proximity to them and several commercial ships -- reportedly around 1,500 yards (metres) -- was "highly provocative", said the official, who was not authorised to be named.

Sharif, quoted on the Guards` website, accused the US of fabricating the incident -- which reportedly occurred after Iranian naval forces announced via radio that the test-firing was to begin.

"Publishing such lies in the current situation is more a psychological operation," Sharif said.

"The security and peace of the Gulf is of serious strategic importance to Iran. The Guards conduct exercises to increase our required preparedness at due times, based on our own schedule."The nuclear deal was heralded by moderates, such as Iran`s President Hassan Rouhani, who staked his reputation on the negotiations. But hardliners in Tehran as well as Republican lawmakers have denounced the agreement.

Several Republicans running for the White House have pledged to rip up the deal if they are elected in November 2016.

Since the accord was struck, Iran`s military has conducted missile tests that were condemned by the US. Iran also recently aired footage on state television of an underground missile base.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US was preparing fresh sanctions against companies and individuals in Iran, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates over alleged links to Tehran`s ballistic missile programme.

Such a step by the US Treasury Department would be the first American sanctions against Iran since the nuclear agreement and presents a potential barrier to its durability.

Although Iran`s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei explicitly endorsed the nuclear accord in October he warned that new sanctions, under any pretext, would constitute a violation.

The deal as it stands is due to come into effect on "Implementation Day", expected within weeks when UN monitors sign off that Iran has fulfilled its obligations and applied agreed curbs to its nuclear programme.

Rouhani criticised Thursday the apparent US moves, saying Iran`s domestic defence had never been within the remit of the nuclear talks.

"If US continues its illegitimate interference w/ Iran`s right to defend itself a new program will be devised to enhance missile capabilities," the president wrote on Twitter.

In a series of messages from his personal account he said "in response to new US #sanctions planned against Iran`s ballistic missile program" he had "ordered the Defense Minister to expedite the program."

He did not detail what such a measure would involve but added: "We have never negotiated regarding our defense capabilities including our missile program & will not accept any restrictions in this regard."


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