(Updates with State Department comment in sixth paragraph.)
Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- An Iranian court sentenced a former U.S. soldier of Iranian descent to death for spying amid rising tensions over concern the Persian Gulf nation may try to close the Strait of Hormuz if Western sanctions are imposed.
The revolutionary court found Amir Mirzaei Hekmati guilty of collaborating “with a hostile country and spying for the Central Intelligence Agency,” Iran’s state-controlled Fars news agency said today.
The sentencing comes as the European Union discusses imposing a ban on Iranian oil imports due to the country’s nuclear program when the bloc’s foreign ministers meet on Jan. 30. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said America would take action to open the Strait of Hormuz, a transit point for a fifth of the world’s crude, if Iran closes the sea passage.
“This case is going to ratchet up the pressure” on President Barack Obama, said Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “It’s going to embolden those who want the U.S. to take a tougher stance on Iran. It could very well turn into a campaign issue.”
Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi said on Dec. 27 that his nation would block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions are imposed, the Islamic Republic News Agency said.
The U.S. is working to confirm Hekmati’s death sentence, while allegations that he worked for the CIA are “simply untrue,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in an e-mailed statement. “The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons.”
Hekmati, who was born in Arizona in 1983, joined the U.S. military in 2001 after completing high school, the Associated Press said, citing his family. Iranian state television broadcast video images of him in custody last month.
Behnaz Hekmati, his mother, said she and her husband Ali are “shocked and terrified” over the death sentence, writing to the AP in an e-mail. Ali Hekmati earlier told the AP his son was visiting his grandmothers in Iran when he was arrested.
Hekmati, represented by a court-appointed lawyer, has 20 days to appeal, according to the AP.
Crude oil for February delivery fell 6 cents to $101.50 a barrel at 9:29 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices are up 15 percent from a year earlier.
The U.K.’s Royal Navy said today it’s deploying one of its most modern destroyers, HMS Daring, to the Persian Gulf in a “long planned” and “routine” replacement of another ship.
The move isn’t in reaction to developments involving Iran, a navy spokesman, who declined to be identified in line with government policy, said by telephone.
Iran has the ability to block the Strait of Hormuz “for a period of time” and the U.S. would take action to reopen it, Dempsey, the top American military commander, said in an interview aired yesterday on the CBS “Face the Nation” program.
In Copenhagen, EU President Herman Van Rompuy told reporters that European sanctions, including discussions about a potential oil embargo, are “putting pressure” on Iran “to negotiate their nuclear program.”
An Iranian blockade could disrupt world trade in goods as companies divert ships from the Persian Gulf to safer regions. Such a move may force companies including Ford Motor Co., BASF SE and Caterpillar Inc. to seek safer routes for transporting items including car parts and chemicals, John Manners-Bell, chief executive officer of Transport Intelligence Ltd., a Wiltshire, England-based logistics consultant, said on Jan. 5.
“If for any reason the strait were closed, it would have a huge impact on the economy in the Middle East and would cause a systematic restructuring of flows of goods around the world,” said Manners-Bell, who used to manage European marketing at United Parcel Service Inc.
A pipeline that would allow crude oil from the United Arab Emirates to bypass the Strait of Hormuz separating it from Iran has been delayed because of construction difficulties, two people with knowledge of the matter said.
As many as 270 construction issues have pushed back the completion date, said the people, declining to be identified because they’re not allowed to speak publicly on the matter. The $3.3 billion project won’t be ready until at least April, one of them said.
--With assistance from Isaac Arnsdorf in London. Editors: Louis Meixler, Jennifer M. Freedman, Digby Lidstone.
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