An Iranian naval exercise involving dozens of small boats around the Strait of Hormuz last week was intended as a message to the United States for reimposing economic sanctions on Tehran, a top U.S. commander has said.
General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told Pentagon reporters on August 8 that Iran was showcasing its military capabilities, amid recent threats by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to close off the strait.
"It's pretty clear to us that they were trying to use that exercise to send a message to us that, as we approach the period for the sanctions here, they had some capabilities," said Votel.
He said the message back to Iran from U.S. Central Command is: "We are aware of what's going on and we remain ready to protect ourselves."
Votel condemned Iran for what he said were efforts to destabilize other countries in the region, including Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
Iran routinely operates small boats in the Strait of Hormuz and the surrounding area, and has often threatened to shut down the strategically important waterway, where about a third of the world's oil exports pass through.
In recent weeks, Iran's military renewed the threat, saying that if sanctions threatened Iran's crude oil exports, the rest of the Mideast's exports would be threatened as well.
Votel said Iran has the ability to plant mines and explosive boats in the waterway, as well as use missiles and radar along the coast. But he said the United States and its allies routinely train for that possibility and are prepared to ensure that freedom of navigation and commerce continues in those waters.
Votel said much of Iran's "destabilizing" activity in the strait and in the region is being directed by General Qassem Soleimani, who heads the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard.
"Wherever you see Iranian activity, you see Qassem Soleimani," said Votel, calling the Quds Force the principle threat in the region.
U.S. sanctions that had been eased by the Obama administration under the landmark 2015 nuclear deal took effect again on August 7, following President Donald Trump's decision in May to withdraw from the accord.
Renewed sanctions targeting Iran's oil industry and banking sector are due to take effect on November 4.