Iran Threatens to Block Oil Shipments, as U.S. Prepares Sanctions

The declaration by Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, came as President Obama prepares to sign legislation that, if fully implemented, could substantially reduce Iran’s oil revenue in a bid to deter it from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Prior to the latest move, the administration had been laying the groundwork to attempt to cut off Iran from global energy markets without raising the price of gasoline or alienating some of Washington’s closest allies.

Apparently fearful of the expanded sanctions’ possible impact on the already-stressed economy of Iran, the world’s third-largest energy exporter, Mr. Rahimi said, “If they impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz,” according to Iran’s official news agency. Iran just began a 10-day naval exercise in the area.

In recent interviews, Obama administration officials have said that the United States has developed a plan to keep the strait open in the event of a crisis. In Hawaii, where President Obama is vacationing, a White House spokesman said there would be no comment on the Iranian threat to close the strait. That seemed in keeping with what administration officials say has been an effort to lower the level of angry exchanges, partly to avoid giving the Iranian government the satisfaction of a response and partly to avoid spooking financial markets.     

But the energy sanctions carry the risk of confrontation, as well as economic disruption, given the unpredictability of the Iranian response. Some administration officials believe that a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States — which Washington alleges received funding from the Quds Force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps — was in response to American and other international sanctions.

Merely uttering the threat appeared to be part of an Iranian effort to demonstrate its ability to cause a spike in oil prices, thus slowing the United States economy, and to warn American trading partners that joining the new sanctions, which the Senate passed by a rare 100-0 vote, would come at a high cost.

Oil prices rose above $100 a barrel in trading after the threat was issued, though it was unclear how much that could be attributed to investors’ concern that confrontation in the Persian Gulf could disrupt oil flows.

The new punitive measures, part of a bill financing the military, would significantly escalate American sanctions against Iran. They come just a month and a half after the International Atomic Energy Agency published a report that for the first time laid out its evidence that Iran may be secretly working to design a nuclear warhead, despite the country’s repeated denials.

In the wake of the I.A.E.A. report and a November attack on the British Embassy in Tehran, the European Union is also contemplating strict new sanctions, such as an embargo on Iranian oil.

For five years, the United States has implemented increasingly severe sanctions in an attempt to force Iran’s leaders to reconsider the suspected nuclear weapons program, and answer a growing list of questions from the I.A.E.A. But it has deliberately stopped short of targeting oil exports, which finance as much as half of Iran’s budget.

Now, with its hand forced by Congress, the administration is preparing to take that final step, penalizing foreign corporations that do business with Iran’s central bank, which collects payment for most of the country’s energy exports.

The sanction would effectively make it difficult for those who do business with Iran’s central bank to also conduct financial transactions with the United States. The step was so severe that one of President Obama’s top national security aides said two months ago that it was “a last resort.” The administration raced to put some loopholes in the final legislation so that it could reduce the impact on close allies who have signed on to pressuring Iran.

The legislation allows President Obama to waive sanctions if they cause the price of oil to rise or threaten national security. NYT