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DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran denied on Thursday that its Revolutionary Guards launched rockets near a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Gulf on Saturday and condemned U.S. plans for new sanctions over its ballistic missile programme.
The dispute comes after Iran and six world powers, including the United States, reached a deal in July that will remove certain U.S., European Union and U.N. sanctions on Tehran in exchange for Iran accepting curbs on its nuclear programme.
"The naval forces of the Guards have not had any exercises in the Strait of Hormuz during the past week and the period claimed by the Americans for them to have launched missiles and rockets," the Revolutionary Guards website quoted Ramezan Sharif, the Guard's spokesman, as saying.
"The publication of such false news under the present circumstances is akin to psychological warfare," Sharif said.
NBC News, citing unnamed U.S. military officials, said the Guards were conducting a live-fire exercise and the U.S. aircraft-carrier Harry S. Truman came within about 1,500 yards (metres) of a rocket as it entered the Gulf with other warships.
In Washington, Commander Kyle Raines said the action was "highly provocative, unsafe and unprofessional."
Several Revolutionary Guard vessels fired the rockets "in close proximity" of the warships and nearby merchant traffic "after providing only 23 minutes of advance notification," said Raines, spokesman for the U.S. Central Command.
Iranian and U.S. forces have clashed in the Gulf in the past, especially during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Diplomats have held out hope that the deal over Iran's disputed nuclear programme could ease decades of mistrust and reduce tensions in the Middle East.
The West has long suspected the programme was aimed at creating a nuclear bomb, something denied by Iran, which sent a shipment of low-enriched uranium materials to Russia this month as part of the deal.
But ahead of the formal easing of international sanctions on Tehran set for the beginning of 2016, tensions have mounted.
Hardliners in Iran have carried out a wave of arrests of activists they accuse of promoting Western "infiltration," while the United States passed a law restricting visa-free travel rights for people who have visited Iran or hold dual Iranian nationality, a measure Iran has called a breach of the deal.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari on Thursday condemned as "arbitrary and illegal" U.S. plans for new sanctions on international companies and individuals over Iran's ballistic missile programme.
"As we have declared to the American government ... Iran's missile programme has no connection to the (nuclear) agreement," state television quoted Ansari as saying.
"Iran will resolutely respond to any interfering action by America against its defensive programmes," said Jaber Ansari.
In Washington, sources familiar with the situation said on Wednesday the U.S. government was preparing the sanctions, which the Wall Street Journal said would target about 12 companies and individuals in Iran, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates for their suspected role in developing Iran's missile programme.
A team of U.N. sanctions monitors said in a confidential report seen by Reuters on Dec. 15 that Iran tested a rocket on Oct. 10 capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, which Iran maintains was a convention missile.
U.S. officials have said the Treasury Department retains a right under the nuclear agreement to blacklist Iranian entities suspected of involvement in missile development.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said such new penalties would nullify the nuclear accord.
"There may actually be a link between the accusations made by the United States (about the Gulf incident) and the new sanctions," Mohammad Marandi, a Tehran University professor, told state-run PressTV. "The regime in Washington is trying to reimpose these sanctions by other means."
Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Janet Lawrence