By Robin Pomeroy
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran has stepped back from a threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, but while its softened rhetoric appears to be aimed at de-escalating military tensions, it does not indicate any change of stance on its nuclear program.
"Iran's leadership has a strong sense of self-preservation," said Robert Smith, a consultant at Facts Global Energy. "The comments can likely be interpreted as a sign of cooler heads prevailing."
A senior commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps said on Saturday the likely return of U.S. naval vessels to the region was "not a new issue and ... should be interpreted as part of their permanent presence."
That was a significant shift from earlier this month when Tehran said the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier, which left at the end of December during Iranian naval maneuvers, should not return - an order interpreted by some observers in Iran and Washington as a blanket threat to any U.S. carriers.
Only a few weeks ago Tehran was threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, used by a third of the world's seaborne oil trade, if new sanctions cripple its oil exports - exactly the effect Washington and Europe are aiming for.
European Union foreign ministers are set to meet on Monday to agree a ban on importing oil from Iran and sanctions signed by U.S. President Barack Obama on New Year's Eve aim to make it impossible for countries around the world to buy Iranian crude.
Iran's First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, who had said Iran would not allow "even one drop of oil" through the strait if oil sanctions are imposed, was less fiery in remarks reported on Sunday.
"Today they (the West) have launched a new game against Iran but it is clear that we will resist against their excessive demands," the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
But while Iran may be reining in its most hawkish rhetoric, and calling for a resumption of talks with world powers that stalled a year ago, it is no closer to offering concessions on the nuclear issue that could lead to an easing of sanctions.
One Western diplomat in Tehran compared Iran's offer of talks to its position before the last round of sanctions were imposed in mid-2010.
"They were saying then: 'Let's have talks,' but it wasn't followed up by any kind of concrete commitment," he said, adding that, despite several public declarations of goodwill, Tehran has yet to deliver a reply to a letter Ashton sent to Tehran on October 21 letter offering to resume talks.
"Iran is not softening its stance," said Meir Javedanfar, Iran analyst and co-author of "The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran."
"It's changing its strategy after realizing that its ill-timed and exaggerated threat to close the Strait of Hormuz in case of sanctions caused more damage to its stance and position than anyone else."
The change in Iran's rhetoric could add to the bearish direction of oil prices which were down on Friday due to signs of reduced demand.
"The result of Iran softening its stance, amongst other factors, will contribute to an easing of oil markets," Smith said, adding that the impact will be limited.
"If recent events are any indication, the markets have listened to Iran's rhetoric so many times that its impact has become quite muted compared to the reactions of, say, five years ago."
While the likelihood of imminent naval clashes in the Gulf may have receded, Iran could yet see through its threat of closing Hormuz in the event of an Israeli air strike on its nuclear facilities, Javedanfar said.
"Iran could still block the strait of Hormuz in case of a preemptive strike against it.
"This is a scenario which nobody could or should ignore, despite the fact that the recent threat to close the strait in case of sanctions turned out to be a bluff."
(Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari; Editing by Myra MacDonald)