Mattis declares Iran the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism

The comments by US defence secretary James Mattis come after the White House announces new sanctions linked to Tehran’s ballistic missile programme.

US defence secretary James Mattis speaks in Tokyo on February 4, 2017. He declared Iran was the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism after the US placed new sanctions on Tehran for a missile test. Toru Yamanaka / AFP
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Abu Dhabi // The US defence secretary James Mattis on Saturday called Iran the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world after the White House announced new sanctions linked to Tehran’s ballistic missile programme.

Iran responded to the sanctions by ramping up its rhetoric of defiance and carrying out missile defence exercises on Saturday.

The Iranian foreign ministry said Tehran would impose its own “legal limitations” on Americans that it said supported terrorists in the region.

The missile defence exercise in Semnan province aimed to “showcase the power of Iran’s revolution and to dismiss the sanctions”, according to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards website.

The tests were to be of short-range missiles with a 75km range, according to the site, and would display Iran’s “complete preparedness to deal with the threats” from the US.

The administration of new US president Donald Trump was expected to take a harder line on Iran than Barack Obama, who sought to engage rather than contain the US adversary, but there has been a sharp escalation of rhetoric after a ballistic missile test and an attack by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels on a Saudi frigate last week.

“As far as Iran goes, this is the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Mr Mattis said in Tokyo.

Mr Mattis said the US has no plans to send more troops to the Middle East in response to Iranian missile tests.

“It does no good to ignore it. It does no good to dismiss it and at the same time I don’t see any need to increase the number of forces we have in the Middle East at this time,” he said. “We always have the capability to do so but right now I don’t think it’s necessary.”

The US navy sent a destroyer, the USS Cole, to patrol the Bab Al Mandeb strait after the attack on the Saudi frigate.

“The international community has been too tolerant of Iran’s bad behaviour,” White House national security adviser Michael Flynn said on Friday.

“The ritual of convening a United Nations Security Council in an emergency meeting and issuing a strong statement is not enough,” he said, adding: “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”

But it is not clear how the new muscular rhetoric will translate into a policy that diverges sharply from the previous administration. The UN Security Council has said that previous ballistic missile tests were not a violation of the letter of the resolution that enshrined the Iran nuclear accord, and Mr Obama also slapped unilateral sanctions on Iran after ballistic missile tests in 2015 and 2016.

The new US sanctions, which are the first of Mr Trump’s tenure, came days after Iran test fired a new medium-range ballistic missile that Mr Flynn said was in “defiance” of the Security Council resolution 2231. Senior administration officials said the sanctions do not affect American commitments under the nuclear deal, which lifted international sanctions on Iran.

The sanctions announced by the US treasury on Friday target 25 individuals and entities that senior US officials said were part of the procurement network for Iran’s ballistic missile development programme. Iran’s adversaries, including Gulf countries, have defence budgets many times that of Tehran, and so its relatively cheap and increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile programme is key to Iran’s deterrence capabilities.

One of the sanctioned entities is based in Dubai – Royal Pearl General Trading company – as well as an Iranian national, Kambiz Rostamian, who the treasury said lives in Dubai.

* With reporting from Reuters