(CNSNews.com) – The head of Iran’s most notorious military organization has voiced support for President Hassan Rouhani’s implied threats to oil shipments in the Persian Gulf in response to U.S. calls for all countries to stop buying Iranian oil.
According to Iranian state media reports Wednesday, Qods Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in a letter to Rouhani praised his comments and offered his help to implement any policy that serves the regime’s interests.
Following President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, energy sanctions are due to be reimposed from early November.
The State Department’s policy planning director, Brian Hook, told reporters on Monday that the aim is to reduce the revenue Iran earns from exporting its oil “to zero, as soon as possible.”
During visits to Switzerland and Austria this week, Rouhani suggested that if shipments of Iranian oil are blocked, other oil supplies in the region will not flow unimpeded.
“The Americans claim that they want to completely stop Iran's oil exports,” he told a meeting of Iranians residing in Switzerland. “But they don’t understand the meaning of this sentence because it’s meaningless that Iran’s oil cannot be exported, while [the] region’s oil is.”
At a subsequent press conference with his Swiss counterpart, Rouhani said the U.S. would never succeed in blocking Iran’s oil exports, calling the notion that everybody except Iran can export oil “incorrect.”
And at a meeting with his Austrian counterpart in Vienna a day later, he returned to the subject.
“Americans claiming that they will reduce Iran’s oil export to zero is mindless, indicating that they haven’t thought about its consequences,” he said. “The Iranian nation has always proved that they will firmly resist any threat to their national interests.”
In his letter to Rouhani, Soleimani – who rarely makes public statements – expressed appreciation for Rouhani’s remarks about oil.
“What has been released in the media about your remarks that if the Islamic Republic of Iran’s oil is not exported, there will be no guarantee for export of oil from any other point in this region … is a source of pride and honor,” he wrote.
(Soleimani also praised Rouhani’s criticism of Israel. After Swiss President Alain Berset spoke of the importance of officially recognizing Israel, Rouhani said he had told his host that “Iran considers the Zionist regime illegitimate.”)
“You made our dear Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], the great nation of the Islamic Iran, and the world’s Muslims proud by making such wise, valuable and strong statements,” Soleimani said in the letter to Rouhani.
“I am at your service to implement any policy that serves the Islamic Republic,” he offered.
The Qods Force is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) division tasked with extraterritorial operations. It has been linked to major terror attacks abroad, military intervention to prop up the Assad regime, and operations leading to the deaths of hundreds of U.S. military personnel during the Iraq war.
The U.S. government has designated the Qods Force and Soleimani for terrorism and other malign activities since 2007.
Another Iranian news agency quoted an IRGC commander, Ismail Kowsari, as saying that if the U.S. wants to stop Iranian oil exports, “we will not allow any oil shipment to pass through the Strait of Hormuz.”
Over the years Iranian regime and military officials have periodically threatened shipping in the Persian Gulf, which accounts for some 40 percent of tanker-shipped oil worldwide.
The waterway’s vulnerabilities are evident. At its narrowest point, the Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz is less than 30 miles wide, and the actual shipping lanes, one for tanker traffic in each direction, are just two miles across.
During the Iraq-Iraq war in the 1980s the belligerents carried out hundreds of attacks on each other’s tankers, using missiles, grenades and mines.
Of Iran’s current production of three million barrels a day it exports some two million barrels a day, and the sales account for roughly 40 percent of the government’s revenue, according to state media.
Iran’s OPEC governor said Wednesday that the U.S. pressure will drive oil prices higher and ultimately hurt its own economy.
West Texas Intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark, was trading at $74 on Wednesday, up from $65 a month ago and $45 a year ago – and the highest it has been at since late 2014.
In his earlier briefing, Hook said the administration was “working to minimize disruptions to the global market [resulting from the Iran sanctions], but we are confident that there is sufficient global spare oil production capacity.”
At the weekend, the White House reported that Trump and Saudi King Salman had discussed the issue in a phone conversation.
“In response to the president’s assessment of a deficit in the oil market, King Salman affirmed that the kingdom maintains a two million barrel per day spare capacity, which it will prudently use if and when necessary to ensure market balance and stability, and in coordination with its producer partners, to respond to any eventuality,” it said.
Major customers of Iranian oil include China, Turkey, South Korea and India.
Hook said the administration was not looking to make exceptions for any country that currently buys oil from Iran – “because doing so would substantially reduce pressure on Iran.”
“We are prepared to work with countries that are reducing their [oil] imports on a case-by-case basis. But as with our other sanctions, we are not looking to grant waivers or licenses,” he said.
On Tuesday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman responded to a question about U.S. calls for an Iran oil cutoff by saying, “China is always opposed to unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction.”
“China and Iran are friendly countries,” said Lu Kang. “We maintain normal exchanges and cooperation within the framework conforming to our respective obligations under the international law. This is beyond reproach.”