Iran snubs US offer of talks to de-escalate spiralling tensions

The US offer could have signalled the beginning of a return to normal relations

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Iran rejected a US offer of talks “without preconditions” that were intended to help de-escalate tensions between the two nations, as Saudi Arabia condemned Tehran's "violations of Iraqi sovereignty".

In a letter to the United Nations Security Council, US Ambassador Kelly Craft said the US was “ready to engage without preconditions in serious negotiations with Iran, with the goal of preventing further endangerment of international peace and security or escalation by the Iranian regime”.

However, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht Ravanchi, dismissed the offer as  “unbelievable” and ruled out any co-operation or talks while US President Donald Trump maintains sanctions on Iran, the Irna news agency reported.

Mr Ravanchi said Washington had "initiated a new series of escalation and animosity with Iran" by killing Qassem Sulimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, on January 3.

The US continued to stand behind the drone strike that killed Suleimani, as well as nine others, including a senior pro-Iran Iraqi militia leader, on the grounds he posed an “imminent threat”, but had appeared to have extended an olive branch in offering negotiations.

Overnight on Wednesday, three more rockets fell into Baghdad's Green Zone, although no injuries were reported. It followed a previous blitz of 22 ballistic missile launches by Iran on bases in Iraq hosting US and other foreign troops in retaliation for Suleimani's death.

The US media reported on Thursday evening that the Ukranian flight that crashed in Tehran on Wednesday evening, at around the same time as the rocket attack, was brought down by an Iranian air defence system.

Citing anonymous US officials, several outlets reported that the signature of an anti-aircraft missile battery that was activated shortly before the aircraft crashed had been identified, as well as the infrared signature of two suspected missile launches.

Mr Trump was asked during a White House event for his response to the plane crash as the reports were published, and said: "It's a tragic thins when I see that. It's a tragic thing. Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side ... not our system. No it has nothing to do with us."

When asked if he thought it was a mechanical issue, he said he didn't "think that's even a question, personally."

"I have a feeling that it’s just — something very terrible happened," he said.

Saudi Arabia was the first Arab neighbour of Iraq to offer its condemnation of the rocket attack.

"The kingdom denounces and condemns the Iranian violations of Iraqi sovereignty," said a statement carried by the official SPA news agency.

Iran warned Iraq about the raids shortly before they happened and in their immediate aftermath, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran had concluded its "proportionate" retaliation.

Mr Trump said on Wednesday night before the second attack that Iran "appears to be standing down", and suggested Tehran and Washington could work towards a nuclear deal while co-operating against terrorists.

"All of our soldiers are safe and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases. Our great American forces are prepared for anything," he said in an address from the White House.

He also announced the US would be imposing "additional punishing sanctions" on Iran.

But Iran, despite informing the UN it “does not seek escalation or war,” threatened further retaliation. A IRGC commander said Iran would take "harsher revenge soon", Tasnim news agency reported on Thursday.

The UN Security Council on Thursday reaffirmed its commitment to "an international order based on international law" amid fears of armed conflict between the two countries.

The 15 members said the Security Council "reaffirms its commitment to the Charter of the United Nations, including the purposes and principles of the Charter, and an international order based on international law".

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said this week he had been informed by UN chief Antonio Guterres that Washington has denied him a visa for his trip to the UN headquarters in New York.

The offer and rejection of talks came as tit-for-tat strikes drove airlines to avoid Iraqi and Iranian airspace, causing the General Civil Aviation Authority to ask the UAE's air operators to evaluate flight path risks.

In a statement carried by state press agency WAM, the GCAA said it is "monitoring and assessing" regional developments, and will take all necessary and appropriate measures promptly.

On Wednesday, the US Federal Aviation Authority announced a ban on all American carriers flying over Iraq or Iran.