US air sorties in Gulf anger Iran

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The United States has stepped up pressure on Iran in the Gulf, launching air sorties over territory claimed by Tehran, the Pentagon confirmed yesterday.

Washington is gradually intensifying its campaign against Iran, which it accuses of involvement in international terrorism. It has imposed sanctions on companies which do business there and made veiled threats of military action. But so far the main impact has to been to antagonise its allies.

Iran complained this week to the United Nations that American warplanes violated its airspace last Saturday. It said that a US fighter flew over Bushehr in the Gulf and another violated Iranian airspace over the disputed island of Abu Musa.

The US denied it had violated Iranian airspace, though it said that there were military exercises in the area. A US Navy official in the Gulf told Reuter news agency: "Our forces were participating in an exercise called Rugged Nautilus. Flights were conducted in international airspace in the Gulf. No violation of Iranian airspace occurred." But the US did confirm that its aircraft flew over Abu Musa, which is disputed between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, saying that this was international airspace.

This tiny island at the mouth of the Gulf is the focus of considerable interest. Jane's Intelligence Review said this week that Iran was building up its naval strength and firepower there. Jane's noted that a new civilian airport there could be used by military craft, and said that Iran had placed Hawk and SA-6 air defence missiles on the island, as well as upgraded Silkworm surface-to-surface missiles .

The timing of the US overflight is significant. The US has implied that it believes Iran might be behind an explosion which killed 19 US servicemen in Saudi Arabia in June. And last Friday - while the exercise in the Gulf was under way - US Defence Secretary, William Perry, warned that the US would take strong action against any country proved to be involved, leading to speculation that military action was planned.

America has also put in place sanctions against companies which do business in Iran, infuriating its allies. The European Union issued a formal warning to Washington yesterday that it could face retaliation for new anti-terrorism legislation threatening foreign companies with sanctions if they invest in Iran or Libya.

Ireland, which currently holds the EU presidency, delivered a strongly- worded protest note to senior US State Department officials through its ambassador in Washington, Dermot Gallagher. He and senior European Commission officials were instructed to express the Union's fury at the so-called D'Amato law signed by President Bill Clinton on Monday.

The letter warned that the EU reserved the right to defend its interests. Referring to the Union's "critical dialogue" with Iran the note said that although committed to countering terrorism EU governments did not believe that objective could be served by enacting laws which penalise friendly governments or violate international agreements.

European governments fear the D'Amato legislation could seriously damage the security of the Union's energy supplies. The law requires the US to impose punitive sanctions on foreign firms investing $40m or more in oil or gas projects in either Iran or Libya.

The US move has also received an implicit rebuke from two of its allies, Turkey and Malaysia. Turkish Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan is to visit Iran at the weekend, and is expected to seal an agreement with Iran for a $20bn natural gas deal. And Malaysian Foreign Minister, Abdullah Badawi, said he would discuss the matter with fellow members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations.