WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is now "fully prepared" to deal with any Iranian effort to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital Gulf avenue for international oil shipments, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.
At a Pentagon news conference, Panetta was asked whether, in light of Iran's threat to close the strait in retaliation for stronger international economic sanctions, Washington is adjusting U.S. forces in the region.
"We are not making any special steps at this point in order to deal with the situation," Panetta replied. "Why? Because, frankly, we are fully prepared to deal with that situation now." He noted that routine planning continues as the U.S. and its allies consider a range of potential Iran-related problems.
The Navy this month added a second aircraft carrier strike group in the Middle East, portraying it as part of a normal rotation and not a deliberate buildup of force. The carriers are the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Abraham Lincoln, under the control of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain.
The U.S. has kept a continuous naval presence in the Gulf region for decades, but international concerns about a potential confrontation have grown amid tensions over the advancement of Iran's nuclear program.
The U.S. also has military forces in nearby United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and other Gulf nations.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the country's most powerful military force, says Tehran's leadership has decided to order the closure of the Strait of Hormuz if Iran's oil exports are blocked as a result of sanctions. A senior Guard officer said earlier this month that the decision has been made by Iran's top authorities.
Iranian politicians have made the threat in the past, but this was the strongest statement yet that a closure of the strait is official policy.
In his remarks at the Pentagon, Panetta said he still holds out hope for a diplomatic solution with Iran.
"It takes two to be able to engage, and we've always expressed a willingness to try to do that," he said. "But we've always made clear that in terms of any threats to the region, in terms of some of the behavior that they've conducted in the region, that we'll also be prepared to respond militarily if we have to."
In what some view as a sign of concern about aggravating tensions with Iran, the U.S. and Israel have postponed what Panetta has called the largest-ever U.S.-Israeli air defense exercise. It was supposed to be conducted in April.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said on Monday the postponement was a "joint" decision with Washington. "The thinking was it was not the right timing now to conduct such an exercise," he said. He refused to elaborate.
Asked about this Wednesday, Panetta said Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, had approached him to suggest the delay "in order to be able to plan better." Panetta said the decision had nothing to do with Iran.
Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, issued a statement Tuesday saying the delay "stemmed solely from technical issues." He said the exercise, dubbed "Austere Challenge 2012", would be held in the second half of this year.
Robert Burns can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP