Panetta: U.S. prepared for Hormuz Strait action

The United States is “fully prepared” for any confrontation with Iran over the strategic Strait of Hormuz, but hopes a dispute would be resolved peacefully, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.

“We obviously always continue to make preparations to be prepared for any contingency, but we are not making any special steps… because we’re fully prepared to deal with that situation now,” Panetta told reporters.

Tehran threatened to close the strait — a chokepoint for one-fifth of the world’s traded oil — late last month, in the event of a military strike or severe tightening of international sanctions over its disputed nuclear program.

Washington is beefing up its naval presence in waters just outside the Gulf in response to the threats.

“We have always maintained a very strong presence in that region. We have a Navy fleet located there,” Panetta said.

“We have a military presence in that region… to make very clear that we were going to do everything possible to help secure the peace in that part of the world.”

The defense chief said Washington has been clear on its effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and from closing the Strait of Hormuz.

“Our goal has always been to make very clear that we would hope that any differences that we have, any concerns we have can be peacefully resolved and done through international laws and international rules,” he said.

“We abide by those international laws and international rules. We would hope that Iran would do the same.”

He declined to comment on a report which said Washington had sent a letter to Iran regarding its threatened closure of the waterway, but said “we have channels in which we deal with the Iranians, and we continue to use those channels.”

On Friday, the New York Times, citing unnamed US officials, reported that Washington had used a secret channel to warn Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that closing the narrow strategic waterway would cross a “red line” and provoke a response.

Panetta said the postponement of joint military exercises with Israel came at the request of his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.

“Minister Barak approached me and indicated that they were interested in postponing the exercise,” he said.

“We looked at it and determined that in order to be able to plan better and to do this so that we would be able to conduct that exercise that it would be better to postpone.”

Israeli officials said Monday the postponement was because of regional tensions and instability, and that the drill will probably take place in the second half of 2012.

The joint maneuver was to have been the biggest yet between the two allies and was seen as an opportunity to display their joint military strength at a time of growing concern about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

But it was to come at a time of rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel, Washington and much of the international community believe masks a weapons drive.

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