Donald Trump has pledged that Iran’s “absolutely broken” economy will face “major” new sanctions on Monday, as Iran countered it would take further steps to increase its nuclear programme unless Europe does more to shield it from US pressure over the coming fortnight.
The US president claimed that Iran wanted to negotiate because of the relentless economic pressure from sanctions. Tehran has so far rejected any talks while sanctions remain, and there was no sign of relief on Sunday. Despite calling off airstrikes that had been planned in reprisal to the downing of a US drone on Thursday, tensions in the Persian Gulf remain high.
On Sunday, eight people were reported wounded in a suspected drone attack on a Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia. The Houthi movement in Yemen, which is backed by Iran, claimed responsibility for the second drone attack on the Abha airport in 10 days, and also claimed to have struck the airport in Jizan, on the south-west Saudi coast.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, warned Iran not to mistake US prudence for weakness. It was reported that the US carried out a cyber-attack on an organisation linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards suspected of being involved in tracking and attacking tanker traffic and naval deployments in the Gulf. A US official told CNN the US cyber command targeted software that was used to track tankers targeted in attacks in the Gulf of Oman on 13 June.
Iranian cyber spies are also said to have extensively used social media, approaching sailors online while pretending to be young women, to mine intelligence on their ships’ movements.
Bolton was judged to have lost an inter-agency dispute last week when Trump pulled back from missile strikes on three Iranian military sites. Trump said the US air force was “cocked and loaded” when he decided the estimated civilian death toll of a military action would be a disproportionate response to Iran’s downing of the unmanned drone.
But Bolton, speaking in Jerusalem before a three-way conference between the US, Russia and Israel on the future role of Iran in Syria, insisted the US had not lost its nerve.
He said no one had granted Iran “a hunting licence in the Middle East”. He echoed Trump’s warnings that the US military was “rebuilt, new and ready to go”, and said “biting” new sanctions would be imposed on Monday.
“Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, its threats to exceed the limits set in the failed Iran nuclear deal in the coming days … are not signs of a nation seeking peace,” Bolton said.
However, back in Washington Trump issued one of his frequent reminders that Bolton does not have the final say in US national security matters, but is just one voice among several competing views.
“John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him he’d take on the whole world at one time, OK? But that doesn’t matter because I want both sides,” Trump told NBC News’s Meet the Press on Sunday. He pointed to the disastrous US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – a war Bolton aggressively advocated – as a reason for caution in the Middle East.
However, the president warned that any more hostile acts by Iran could draw a more forceful military response than the one planned and aborted on Thursday.
“So what happened is I said, ‘I’m not going to do it. I’ll save it. If they do something else, it’ll be double’,” Trump told NBC, adding that he would continue to ramp up sanctions.
“We are putting major additional sanctions on Iran on Monday,” Trump tweeted.
In his NBC interview he added: “I think that they want to negotiate. I don’t think they like the position they’re in. Their economy is, is absolutely broken.”
As he has done on almost every occasion he has discussed Iran, Trump offered direct talks with “no preconditions” focused on Iran’s nuclear programme.
He said he told Shinzō Abe, before the Japanese prime minister visited Tehran on 12 June: “Send the following message: you can’t have nuclear weapons. And other than that, we can sit down and make a deal. But you cannot have nuclear weapons.”
On further questioning he added the demand that Tehran should not have a ballistic missile programme, and suggested he wanted a tougher inspection regime.
Iran has said it does not want to acquire nuclear weapons and has agreed not to do so under the non-proliferation treaty. Until now, it has stuck to the limits on its nuclear programme agreed in a 2015 multilateral deal, which Trump withdrew the US from last May and has since tried to destroy.
Faced with a US-imposed oil embargo and a web of other sanctions, Iran has warned in recent months that it will cease to abide by some elements of the 2015 agreement.
It is allowing stocks of low-enriched uranium to build up, and President Hassan Rouhani has warned that if Europe does not do more to shield Iran from US sanctions by a 8 July deadline, it will take the much more significant step of increasing its uranium enrichment levels, bringing it closer to weapons grade.
On Sunday, the head of Tehran’s strategic council on foreign relations suggested Iran could further raise the stakes.
“If Europeans don’t take measures within the 60-day deadline [announced by Iran in May], we will take new steps,” the semi-official news agency ISNA quoted Kamal Kharazi as saying.
Speaking after meeting the British Middle East minister, Andrew Murrison, in Tehran, Kharazi said Europeans should provide capital for the special trading vehicle designed to enable European trade with Iran and circumvent US sanctions. Accusing Europe of failing to deliver on its promises, he said: “One should see whether Europe is making empty promises or taking practical steps in the two weeks that remain until the deadline.”
On his visit Murrison also raised the plight of the Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is on hunger strike in a Tehran jail. She is serving a five-year sentence for espionage, a charge she denies.
Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, is on a sympathy hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy in London. A stream of well-wishers have been to visit him, including Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson.