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Israel warns Iran of Red Sea response, Tehran readies major Hormuz exercise

JERUSALEM, Aug 2, (RTRS): Israel would deploy its military if Iran were to try to block the Bab al-Mandeb strait that links the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday. Last week, Saudi Arabia said it was suspending oil shipments through the strait, on the main sea route from the Middle East to Europe, after Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis attacked two ships in the waterway.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are in a three-year-old proxy war in Yemen, which lies on the southern side of Bab al-Mandeb. Yemen’s Houthis, who have previously threatened to block the strait, said last week they had the naval capability to hit Saudi ports and other Red Sea targets. Iran has not threatened to block Bab al-Mandeb but has said it would block the strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Gulf, if it were prevented from exporting its own oil.

“If Iran will try to block the straits of Bab al-Mandeb, I am certain that it will find itself confronting an international coalition that will be determined to prevent this, and this coalition will also include all of Israel’s military branches,” Netanyahu said at a passing out parade for new naval officers in Haifa. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a separate speech at the event that Israel had “recently heard of threats to harm Israeli ships in the Red Sea.”

He gave no further details. Ships bound for Israel, mainly from Asia, pass through the waterway to Eilat, or continue through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea. Ships bound for Jordan’s Aqaba port and for some Saudi destinations must also pass through the strait. Bab al-Mandeb is 29 kms (18 miles) wide, making hundreds of ships potentially an easy target.

The US Energy Information Administration said an estimated 4.8 million barrels per day of crude oil and products fl owed through it in 2016. Israel has attacked Iranian forces in Syria and has insisted that they leave Syria completely. They have withdrawn to a distance of 85 kms (53 miles) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Russia’s special envoy to Syria said on Wednesday.

The US, meanwhile, believes Iran is preparing to carry out a major exercise in the Gulf in the coming days, apparently moving up the timing of annual drills amid heightened tensions with Washington, US officials told Reuters on Wednesday.

Iran has been furious over US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of an international nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Tehran. Senior Iranian officials have warned the country would not easily yield to a renewed US campaign to strangle Iran’s vital oil exports. The US military’s Central Command confirmed that it has seen an increase in Iranian activity, including in the strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway for oil shipments that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have threatened to block.

“We are aware of the increase in Iranian naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman,” said Navy Captain Bill Urban, the chief spokesman at Central Command, which oversees US forces in the Middle East.

“We are monitoring it closely, and will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waterways,” Urban added. Urban did not provide further information or comment on questions about the expected Iranian drills. But US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has appeared to prepare more than 100 vessels for exercises. Hundreds of ground forces could also be involved.

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