By Parisa Hafezi and Lesley Wroughton
DUBAI/WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he was not seeking war with Tehran after a senior Iranian military commander warned any conflict in the Gulf region could spread uncontrollably and threaten the lives of U.S. troops.
Tensions remain high between longtime foes Iran and the United States after Trump said on Friday that he called off a military strike to retaliate for Iran‘s downing of an unmanned U.S. drone out of concern it would have been a disproportionate response.
“I’m not looking for war,” Trump said on NBC’s Meet the Press program.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated to reporters on Sunday that Washington wanted talks with Tehran.
“We’re prepared to negotiate with no preconditions,” he said. “They know precisely how to find us. I am confident that at the very moment they’re ready to truly engage with us we’ll be able to begin these conversations. I’m looking forward to that day.”
Pompeo also said “significant” sanctions on Iran would be announced on Monday aimed at further choking off resources that Tehran uses to fund its activities in the region.
“We are going to deny them the resources they need to do that, thereby keeping American interests and American people safe all around the world,” Pompeo said before leaving to travel for talks on Iran with U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Another source of regional tension is the war in Yemen – Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi group killed one person and wounded seven on Sunday in an attack on a civilian airport in Saudi Arabia. A Western-backed Sunni Muslim coalition led by the Saudis and the UAE intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognised government that was ousted from power by the Houthis in late 2014.
Trump has indicated that he would also be prepared to seek a deal to bolster Iran‘s flagging economy, an apparent move to defuse tensions.
“I think they want to negotiate. And I think they want to make a deal. And my deal is nuclear. Look, they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said.
Iran played down the impact of any new U.S. sanctions. They were “just propaganda, as all sanctions … have been imposed and there are no more sanctions left,” state-run news agency IRIB quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi as saying.
Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons and refers to a fatwa or religious decree issued in the early 2000s by Iran‘s top authority Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that bans the development or use of nuclear weapons.
Last year Trump withdrew the United States from a 2015 accord between Iran and world powers that curbed Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions. Relations in the region have worsened significantly since then.
Diplomatic efforts are underway to ease tensions following attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in recent weeks that the United States blames on Iran and the shooting down of the American drone last week. Tehran has denied involvement in the tanker attacks, which no one has claimed responsibility for.
Andrew Murrison, Britain’s minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said on Sunday that he had “open, frank and constructive” talks with Iranian government representatives in Tehran.
“I reiterated the UK’s assessment that Iran almost certainly bears responsibility for recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman,” and called for such activity to stop, Murrison said.
Britain, France, Germany and the European Union are signatories to the 2015 deal and Tehran wants the Europeans to shield Iran from the Trump administration’s sanctions through a trade mechanism.
After the talks with Murrison, Iran said it would not back down from its decision in May to reduce some of its commitments under the pact, state TV quoted Iran‘s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi as saying.
“The European signatories of the deal lack the will to save the deal. Our decision to decrease our commitment to the deal is a national decision and it is irreversible as long as our demands are not met,” Araqchi said.
Iran has said it would respond firmly to any threat and warned on Sunday of the risks of a military confrontation.
“If a conflict breaks out in the region, no country would be able to manage its scope and timing,” Major General Gholamali Rashid said, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
“The American government must act responsibly to protect the lives of American troops by avoiding misconduct in the region.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the Americans of stoking tensions through what Iran has called the violation of its airspace by the U.S. military drone, Fars reported.
Washington said the aircraft was targeted in international air space in “an unprovoked attack”.
On a visit to Kuwait, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, said that the June 28-29 G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan would provide an opportunity to discuss addressing maritime threats in Gulf waters.
“This is a very urgent priority that nations around the world would come together and enhance maritime security … This is one of the most critical shipping lines and we cannot allow Iranto threaten the free flow of commerce, to threaten lives, to threaten maritime catastrophes,” Hook told reporters.
A hawk in Trump’s administration, national security adviser John Bolton, sought to maintain military pressure on Iran.
“Neither Iran nor any other hostile actor should mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness. No one has granted them a hunting license in the Middle East,” Bolton said during a visit to Israel.
U.S. ally Israel, which Islamic Iran refuses to recognise and has itself long threatened strikes against Iran‘s nuclear facilities, signaled backing for the Trump administration’s stance.
Meanwhile, Iranian lawmakers chanted “Death to America” during a parliament session on Sunday. The chants, often repeated since the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, were heard weeks after Trump said in a U.S. television interview: “They (Iranians) haven’t screamed ‘death to America’ lately.”
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom and Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Ahmed Hagagy in Kuwait, and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Keith Weir and Grant McCool; Editing by Daniel Wallis)