US expects Iran to retaliate against new sanctions, top official says

Brian Hook, Washington’s point man on Iran, tells The National the world must act against Tehran’s violence

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A senior US official spearheading Washington’s diplomatic campaign against Iran said on Saturday that he expected Tehran to “push back” against intensified sanctions announced by US President Donald Trump on Saturday, but he would not be drawn on whether he expected there to be further attacks by Tehran in the region after the downing of a US drone.

"They are going to push back and it is important that the international community does not let Iran get away with the status quo of an acceptable level of violence," Brian Hook, US special representative for Iran, told The National in an interview upon his arrival in Abu Dhabi, where he is expected to hold talks with Emirati officials about Iran.

The UAE is a stop on a regional tour designed to increase coordination with Washington’s regional allies as tensions continue to simmer.

“We have enhanced our force posture in the region and I am here to deepen our cooperation with our allies to restore deterrence against Iran’s attacks, to isolate Iran diplomatically and to build support for our efforts to reverse Iran’s power projection,” Mr Hook said.

He was referring to the downing of a US Global Hawk surveillance drone on Thursday, at least six attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and missile and drone attacks on several targets in Saudi Arabia in the last two months that both he and other Trump administration officials have blamed on Tehran.

The veteran diplomat’s comments came on the same day that Mr Trump said that Washington would impose new sanctions on Iran in retaliation for its shooting down of the drone over the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday, an attack that nearly pushed him into a military retaliation.

"We are putting additional sanctions on Iran," Mr Trump said. "In some cases we are going slowly, but in other cases we are moving rapidly."

He said he will call his diplomatic and economic campaign against the country, "Let's make Iran great again," an amended reference to his famed campaign slogan.

Mr Trump, who was speaking to reporters at the White House, made his comments after recently calling off military actions against Iran to retaliate for the downing. He said that military action was still a possibility despite U-turning on military action because it could have killed what he said were estimates of 150 people at several Iranian sites.

Mr Trump said in a tweet later on Saturday that sanctions would begin on Monday but that he "looked forward to the day sanctions come off Iran, and they become a productive and prosperous nation again".

Asked about coordination with the UAE on a response to the Iranian attacks, Mr Hook said it includes intelligence sharing and action at the United Nations.

“We will continue to work with our Gulf partners on the many aspects of our new foreign policy against Iran,” he said.

Mr Hook said that, despite the new sanctions, Iran could still respond to “the many diplomatic offering by the United States” to negotiate a new nuclear agreement that would focus on Iran’s nuclear program, its missile program and what he termed as Iran’s regional aggression.

The US pulled out of the 2015 international nuclear deal last year. Tehran suspended two of its commitments under the deal last month just days after the one-year anniversary of Washington’s withdrawal. Mr Hook said the landmark agreement signed with world powers had encouraged Iran to further pursue a “violent and expansionist foreign policy”.

Iran warned the United States on Saturday that any aggression against the Islamic republic would have serious consequences for US concerns in the region.

"Firing one bullet towards Iran will set fire to the interests of America and its allies" in the Middle East, armed forces general staff spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi told the Tasnim news agency.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted a map on Saturday with detailed coordinates which he said show a U.S. drone shot down by Iran on Thursday was within the Islamic Republic's territorial waters.

The map also showed two yellow squares on the flight path of the drone which, according to the map, indicate Iranian radio warnings sent to the drone.

But the Pentagon says the Global Hawk drone – one of the most expensive pieces of equipment in the US arsenal, costing over $120 million apiece – was 34 kilometres (21 miles) from Iran when destroyed by a surface-to-air missile in an "unprovoked attack".

It published a map of the drone's flight path indicating it avoided Iranian waters, but Tehran provided its own map showing the aircraft inside its territory when it was downed by a domestically-manufactured Khordad 3 air defense battery.

The US Federal Aviation Administration has barred American civilian aircraft from the area "until further notice," and major non-US airlines including British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas, Emirates and Etihad said they too were altering flight paths to avoid the sensitive Strait of Hormuz.

Worries about a confrontation between Iran and the United States have increased despite Mr Trump saying that he has no appetite to go to war with Iran. Tehran has also said it is not seeking a war but has warned of a "crushing" response if attacked.

The state-owned IRIB news agency reported on Saturday that Iran executed a former contract employee for the aerospace organisation of the defence ministry in recent days on charges of spying for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Jalal Hajizavar had left his post nine years ago and was convicted by a military court after an investigation which discovered documents and spying equipment at his home, the report said.

He was executed at the Rajai Shahr prison in Karaj, west of Tehran, without providing further details.