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Larry Crowe

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. military is now "fully prepared" to deal with any Iranian effort to close the Strait of Hormuz, a vital Persian 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.