(Adds U.S. comment, paragraph 6)
DUBAI Feb 9 An Iranian naval officer said a
number of warships had been ordered to approach U.S. maritime
borders as a response to the stationing of U.S. vessels in the
Gulf, the semi-official Fars news agency reported on Saturday.
"Iran's military fleet is approaching the United States'
maritime borders, and this move has a message," the agency
quoted Admiral Afshin Rezayee Haddad as saying.
Haddad, described as commander of the Iranian navy's
northern fleet, said the vessels had started their voyage
towards the Atlantic Ocean via "waters near South Africa", Fars
Fars said the plan was part of "Iran's response to
Washington's beefed up naval presence in the Persian Gulf."
The Fars report, which carried no details of the vessels,
could not be confirmed independently.
In Washington, a U.S. defense official, speaking on
condition of anonymity, cast doubt on any claims that the
Iranian ships were approaching U.S. maritime borders. But the
official added that "ships are free to operate in international
The United States and its allies regularly stage naval
exercises in the Gulf, saying they want to ensure freedom of
navigation in the waterway through which 40 percent of the
world's seaborne oil exports passes.
U.S. military facilities in the region include a base for
its Fifth Fleet in the Gulf Arab kingdom of Bahrain.
Iran sees the Gulf as its own backyard and believes it has a
legitimate interest in expanding its influence there.
Iranian officials have often said Iran could block the
Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Gulf, if it came under
military attack over its disputed nuclear programme, and the
Western war games are seen in the region as an attempt to deter
any such move.
Fars said the Iranian navy had been developing its presence
in international waters since 2010, regularly launching vessels
in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden to protect Iranian
ships from Somali pirates operating in the area.
(Reporting by William Maclean; Additional reporting by Phil
Stewart in Washington; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Chris