Iran begins military drills

Iran has announced three days of military exercises aimed at spotlighting the Islamic republic`s strength in the face of increasing Western pressure over Tehran`s nuclear program.

Officials said the drills, beginning in Iran`s central desert, will include exercises with surface-to-surface missiles, some of which have sufficient range to reach Israel and southern Europe.

The Revolutionary Guards said the maneuvers will demonstrate that Iran is capable of mounting a ``crushing`` response to any hostile act from other nations.

The chief of the Guards` air unit said the exercises were also aimed at assessing the accuracy and effectiveness of warheads and systems.

The exercises are being launched one day after a European Union embargo on Iranian oil imports went into effect in a bid to punish Iran economically for refusing to halt uranium enrichment work that could be directed toward development of a nuclear weapon.

Iran denies seeking to build nuclear weapons.

Oil market observers say the embargo is likely to deal a severe blow to Iran`s oil exports, which account for half of its government revenues. Iran`s crude exports have already fallen by 40 percent this year, according to the International Energy Agency.

The EU oil ban follows fresh U.S. sanctions that prohibit the banks around the world from completing oil transactions with Iranian banks.

As the embargo went into effect on July 1, Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi downplayed it as ineffective and said other nations had already stepped forward to buy the oil initially destined for Europe.

Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, however, has admitted the EU ban was ``the heaviest of sanctions`` and may cause ``occasional confusion`` on the domestic market.

Rahimi said authorities had stockpiled imported goods and hard currency to help cushion the embargo`s impact.

Iran is the second-largest producer in OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, producing about 4 million barrels of oil a day. The country`s recoverable oil reserves are estimated at more than 137 billion barrels, or 12 percent of the world`s overall reserves.

Three rounds of talks this year between Iran and six world powers -- Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States -- have failed to ease the crisis over the nuclear dispute.