WASHINGTON - The United States has moved new forces into the Gulf to keep strategic waterways open and strike deep within Iran in the event of a regional military escalation, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

The Times cited senior officials as saying the quiet build-up was aimed at reassuring Israel that Washington is serious about addressing Iran’s nuclear programme and keeping the Straits of Hormuz - a key oil choke point - open. “The message to Iran is, ‘Don’t even think about it,’” it quoted a senior Defence Department official as saying. “Don’t even think about closing the strait. We’ll clear the mines.

 Don’t even think about sending your fast boats out to harass our vessels or commercial shipping. We’ll put them on the bottom of the Gulf.” The Navy has doubled the number of minesweepers in the region, to eight vessels, and stealthy F-22s and older F-15C warplanes have been deployed to regional bases to reinforce existing carrier strike groups, the Times said.

Iran has threatened to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the oil-rich Gulf if its nuclear programme is targeted by air strikes.