The United States is closely watching Iranian naval exercises in the Persian Gulf and will maintain freedom of navigation through a strategic waterway that Iran has threatened to block, the head of the Navy told VOA on Thursday.
"They're doing this exercise. We're monitoring it closely," Admiral John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said in an exclusive interview. "Certainly, we'll continue to maintain freedom of navigation through that very important Strait of Hormuz."
The U.S. Navy defends sea traffic norms, which allow passage through the narrow strait. Located on the eastern edge of the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz is one of the world's most important export routes.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recently threatened to block the strait, and a U.S. official told VOA that dozens of vessels had gathered for the Iranian military exercises.
'A position to respond'
Should Iran try to cut off the free-trade route, Richardson said, the U.S. Navy and its allies operating in the region will "be able to handle that threat."
"If we need to become more forceful, well, we're at a position to respond and do that," he told VOA.
The U.S. Navy has not had an aircraft carrier in the region since March. U.S. defense officials told VOA that the guided-missile destroyer USS The Sullivans was inside the Persian Gulf, and that several ships were stationed at Bahrain.
"I don't need much warning to be able to respond and get somebody there," Richardson told VOA.
Another U.S. defense official told VOA an aircraft carrier isn't always needed to be effective, pointing to the recent strikes into Syria that were conducted with destroyers, a submarine, a cruiser and U.S. bomber planes, along with British and French assets.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have been rising since May when U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing from the nuclear deal signed by Tehran and major world powers to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned Iran against shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, saying that would amount to an attack on international shipping, which he said would provoke "an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever it took."