Iran blames ‘unacceptable’ US sanctions for spike in tensions as White House advisors push for forceful response

Chris Stevenson

Iran’s foreign minister has hit out at “unacceptable” sanctions imposed by the US as an international deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions continues to unravel amid a spike in tensions.

Mohammad Zarif defended Iran’s right to respond to the US pullout from the nuclear deal last year.

“We believe that escalation by the United States is unacceptable and uncalled for. We have exercised maximum restraints,” he said during a visit to Tokyo. In other comments carried on the semi-official Mehr news agency, Mr Zarif was quoted as saying: “A multilateral deal cannot be treated unilaterally.”

The spat over the nuclear deal has been heightened by a number of events this week, including a drone attack on a Saudi Arabian oil pipeline claimed by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels, allegations of acts of sabotage perpetrated against oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the dispatch of US warships to the region.

The Saudis – Iran’s biggest rival in the region – blamed Tehran for ordering the Houthi attack. A Saudi-led coalition has been waging an air war against the Houthis since 2015, with both the US and Riyadh accusing Iran of providing weapons to the Houthis. Tehran has denied this.

Saudi Arabia’s deputy defence minister Khalid bin Salman tweeted: “The attack by the Iranian-backed Houthi militias against the two Aramco pumping stations proves that these militias are merely a tool that Iran’s regime uses to implement its expansionist agenda in the region”.

The longest-simmering issue is the Donald Trump-mandated withdrawal from the nuclear pact and the cranking up of sanctions against Iran by Washington. Iran has issued a number of veiled threats about enriching its uranium stockpiles to weapons-grade levels, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying the “the next steps are easier” than what has come before.

Iran recently threatened it might resume higher enrichment by 7 July, beyond the level permitted by the current deal between Tehran and world powers, claiming that its programme is for peaceful purposes.

White House advisor John Bolton in particular has long-standing concerns about Iran, writing in The New York Times in 2015 that the US should think about bombing Iran as the country “will not negotiate away its nuclear programme” – although an agreement was approved the next year.

Mr Bolton was reportedly behind a push to update military plans surrounding the use of aggression by Iran, including sending as many as 120,000 troops to the region in the wake of an attack by Tehran on US interests or a significant move in its nuclear programme.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Trump said that he was the one to rein in 70-year-old Mr Bolton. “I’m the one who tempers him, which is OK,” he said.

“I have John Bolton and I have people who are a little more dovish than him,” Mr Trump added.

In a tweet on Wednesday, the president denied any infighting between members of his team. “There is no infighting whatsoever,” Mr Trump wrote. “Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision – it is a very simple process.

However, Mr Trump is said to be getting frustrated with officials like Mr Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo over a push for a confrontation with Iran, according to The Washington Post. “They are getting way out ahead of themselves, and Trump is annoyed,” a senior administration official said.

Mr Trump is not inclined to respond forcefully unless there is a “big move” from the Iranians, the paper quoted a White House official as saying, with the president believed to be loath to go against his long-standing promise to end costly foreign wars by the US.

The Democratic US House speaker Nancy Pelosi meanwhile said on Thursday that the the Trump administration “must realise” it does not have congressional authorisation to go to war against Iran.

Washington sent ships and warplanes into the Gulf last week, citing an increased threat from Tehran, and the state department warned all non-essential government staff to leave Iraq.

British forces in Iraq were also placed on high alert on Thursday, following the decision.

However, Major General Chris Ghika, the British deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the US-led coalition fighting Isis, had a day earlier disputed claims from the White House that forces in the Middle East are facing an increased threat from Iran or its allies.

Maj Gen Ghika told reporters during a video conference from coalition headquarters in Baghdad on Tuesday, that there “has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria”.