U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Sunday Iran should not “mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness,” after the U.S. abruptly called off military strikes against Iran in response to the shooting down of an unmanned American surveillance drone.
Bolton’s tough message seemed to be aimed not only at Tehran, but also at reassuring key U.S. allies that the White House remains committed to maintaining pressure on Iran. Israel, along with Arab countries in the Gulf, considers Iran to be their greatest threat, and Trump’s last-minute about face appears to have raised questions about U.S. willingness to use force against the Islamic Republic.
The downing of the aircraft on Thursday marked a new high in the rising tensions between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration has vowed to combine a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions with a buildup of American forces in the region, following the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
On Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blamed the United States’ “interventionist military presence” for fanning the flames. He was quoted by the official IRNA news agency.
“The region is very sensitive and security of the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman waterways is important to many countries. We expect international bodies to show proper reaction to the invasion move,” Rouhani said about the U.S. drone that Iran says violated its airspace.
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President Donald Trump says he backed away from the planned strikes after learning 150 people would be killed.
Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk, emphasized that the U.S. reserved the right to attack at a later point. He also said a new set of sanctions on Iran are expected to be announced Monday.
“No one has granted them a hunting license in the Middle East. As President Trump said on Friday our military is rebuilt, new and ready to go,” Bolton said in Jerusalem alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself a vocal critic of Iran over the years.
Bolton is visiting Israel for three-way talks with his Israeli and Russian counterparts that are expected to focus on Iranian involvement in conflicts across the region, including in neighboring Syria.
Netanyahu, a longtime opponent of the nuclear deal, has remained uncharacteristically quiet throughout the current crisis between the U.S. and Iran. The Israeli leader appears to be wary of being seen as pushing the U.S. into a new Middle Eastern military conflict.
Standing alongside Bolton, Netanyahu said Iranian involvement in conflicts across the region had increased as a result of the nuclear deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for set limits on its uranium enrichment levels.
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“After the deal, but before recent events, Iran has been on a campaign of aggression,” Netanyahu said. “Those who describe the recent actions as somehow opening a hornet’s nest are living on another planet.”
Netanyahu made no mention of the called-off airstrike and said he was “pleased” by U.S. plans for increased economic pressure. But some Israeli commentators said that Trump’s about-face was a cause for concern.
Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign minister said Bolton was trying to force the U.S. into a conflict with Iran. Javad Zarif tweeted that the presidential adviser was “moments away from trapping” Trump into a “war,” before the U.S. president called off the strikes against Iran.
America’s European allies have expressed deep concern about the volatile standoff. A top British diplomat was in Tehran on Sunday to discuss preventing any “escalation and miscalculation,” according to the UK Foreign Office.
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The two-day visit of Andrew Murrison, the UK’s minister of state for the Middle East, was aimed at “open, frank and constructive engagement” with his Iranian counterparts, according to the Foreign Office. This included reiterating the UK’s assessment that Iran almost certainly bears responsibility for recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which Iran denies.
Murrison added that Iran must continue to meet its commitments under the nuclear deal.
Iran has threatened to break the limits set on its uranium stockpile by the deal in the coming days, if European powers don’t find a way to circumvent U.S. sanctions.
According to IRNA, Iranian officials told Murrision they hoped that European signatories to the nuclear deal will pursue “normal relations and trade” despite the sanctions.
Also Sunday, a top Iranian military commander warned that any conflict with Iran would have uncontrollable consequences across the region and endanger the lives of U.S. forces. Maj. Gen. Gholamali Rashid’s remarks, published by the semi-official Fars news agency, were made while addressing Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps during a field visit to a command center for Iranian radars and missile systems.
U.S. military cyber forces on Thursday launched a strike against Iranian military computer systems, according to U.S. officials. The cyberattacks disabled Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps computer systems that controlled its rocket and missile launchers, the officials said.
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Throughout the recent crisis, Trump has wavered between bellicose language and actions toward Iran and a more accommodating tone. His administration is aiming to cripple Iran’s economy and force policy changes by re-imposing sanctions, including on Iranian oil exports.
He’s also dangled the prospect of eventually becoming an unlikely “best friend” of America’s longtime Middle Eastern adversary.
The regional tensions have prompted major international carriers, including Saudi Arabia’s state airline Saudia, to divert flight routes away from the Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s on Friday barred U.S.-registered aircraft from operating over parts of the Persian Gulf.