(Update: Adds detail in paragraphs four and five)
(CNSNews.com) – As Iran ratcheted up its rhetoric Thursday about closing the Strait of Hormuz, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul revisited his earlier criticisms of Western policy towards Tehran, adding that Iran would be justified in cutting off the strategic waterway in response to sanctions.
Paul’s views on Iran and other foreign policy issues – essentially a noninterventionist, anti-war approach – have sparked clashes on several occasions during the GOP presidential primary season, and are attracting growing scrutiny as the Iowa caucus looms.
At a campaign event in Iowa Thursday, Paul called Western sanctions imposed against Iran over its nuclear activities “horrendous” and “acts of war,” while repeating earlier assertions that Iran would understandably want to develop a nuclear weapons capability, the Los Angeles Times reported.
It said Paul argued that blocking the strait would be Iran’s most likely response to tougher sanctions because, since it has “no weapons of mass destruction,” blocking the waterway would be “the most” that it could do.
The Texan congressman said that as president he would not respond with military action to an Iranian closure of Hormuz, as he would not consider it an act of war against the United States. Instead, he would refer the matter to the U.S. Congress. Paul’s comments were also cited by ABC News.
Paul’s Republican rivals have stepped up criticism over his foreign policy stances.
“One of the people running for president thinks it’s okay for Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told a Muscatine, Iowa event on Wednesday. “I don’t.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, campaigning in Des Moines, said, “You don’t have to vote for a candidate who will allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, because America will be next.”
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum have also both tussled with Paul over Iran during primary debates, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has called for robust measures to bring down the regime “with minimum use of force,” including cutting off its gas supply and sabotaging its oil refinery.
Some 40 percent of the world’s tanker-borne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Tankers transit the narrow channel in the Persian Gulf use two-mile wide channels demarcated in each direction, sailing through Iranian territorial waters in the north and Omani waters in the south.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, ships have the right of “innocent passage” through the territorial seas of a coastal state.
Iran’s vice-president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, warned earlier this week that if Western countries go ahead with proposed sanctions against Tehran's crude exports, then “not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz.”
“Any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in response to the threats, describing the waterway as “an economic lifeline for countries in the Gulf region.”
A senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, Brig.-Gen. Hossein Salami, fired back, telling the Fars news agency Thursday, “our response to threats is threats” and saying the U.S. was not in any position to prevent Iran from shutting the waterway.
Adding to the bluster, Iranian military spokesmen said a U.S. aircraft carrier had been monitored this week as it moved eastward through the Strait of Hormuz, near the area where Iran’s navy is holding wargames.
Iran has been carrying out extensive naval maneuvers in a wide area including the eastern approaches to Hormuz, with some politicians characterizing the wargames as a warning to the West. The drills are scheduled to run through January 3.
The Pentagon’s Little described the movement of the carrier USS John C. Stennis and accompanying vessels through the strait as a “pre-planned, routine transit.”
The carrier was earlier deployed off Iraq, where according to the U.S. Navy it carried out the final air mission in support of Operation New Dawn on December 18. It is now in the Arabian Sea, where it will support the mission in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom.
Should the Strait of Hormuz be closed to shipping – through Iranian action or for any other reason – an alternative route for oil moving through the Gulf to world markets would be via the 745-mile East-West pipeline across Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea. From there, tankers would have to sail north through the Suez canal or south through the Gulf of Aden.
But according to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, while the Hormuz route accounts for up to 17 million barrels of oil a day (15.5 million in 2009) the Saudi pipeline only has the capacity to handle five million barrels a day. Longer, alternative routes would also push up costs, the EIA says.
Asked whether the U.S. was doing any contingency planning or holding discussions with other oil producers in case Iran closed the strait, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued a brief statement Thursday.
“The United States maintains a regular, full and robust dialogue with significant energy producing and consuming countries on various aspects of the oil markets, including contingency plans in the event of disruptions to those markets,” the statement said. “We cannot, however, comment on the specifics of these discussions.”