In UAE, Trump's adviser warns Iran of 'very strong response'
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — President Donald Trump's national security adviser warned Iran on Wednesday that any attacks in the Persian Gulf will draw a "very strong response" from the U.S., taking a hard-line approach with Tehran after his boss only two days earlier said America wasn't "looking to hurt Iran at all."
John Bolton's comments are the latest amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran that have been playing out in the Middle East.
Bolton spoke to journalists in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, which only days earlier saw former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warn there that "unilateralism will not work" in confronting the Islamic Republic.
The dueling approaches highlight the divide over Iran within American politics. The U.S. has accused Tehran of being behind a string of incidents this month, including the alleged sabotage of oil tankers off the Emirati coast, a rocket strike near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and a coordinated drone attack on Saudi Arabia by Yemen's Iran-allied Houthi rebels.
On Wednesday, Bolton told journalists that there had been a previously unknown attempt to attack the Saudi oil port of Yanbu as well, which he also blamed on Iran. He described Tehran's decision to back away from its 2015 atomic deal with world powers as evidence it sought nuclear weapons, even though it came a year after America unilaterally withdrew from the unraveling agreement.
Bolton stressed the U.S. had not seen any further Iranian attacks in the time since, something he attributed to the recent military deployments — America recently sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. But he warned the U.S. would strike back if again attacked.
"The point is to make it very clear to Iran and its surrogates that these kinds of action risk a very strong response from the United States," Bolton threatened, without elaborating.
Bolton spoke before talks with Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He declined to have his remarks recorded by journalists.
A longtime Iran hawk, Bolton blamed Tehran for the recent incidents, at one point saying it was "almost certainly" Iran that planted explosives on the four oil tankers off the UAE coast. He declined to offer any evidence for his claims.
"Who else would you think is doing it?" Bolton asked at one point when pressed. "Somebody from Nepal?"
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has repeatedly criticized Bolton as a warmonger. Abbas Mousavi, a spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, said later Wednesday Bolton's remarks were a "ridiculous accusation."
Separately in Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani said that the "road is not closed" when it comes to talks with the U.S. — if America returns to the nuclear deal. However, the relatively moderate Rouhani faces increasing criticism from hard-liners and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the collapsing accord.
Meanwhile, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said some 900 troops coming to the Mideast over the perceived Iran threat to reinforce the tens of thousands already in the region would be placed in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Another 600 attached to a Patriot missile battery have had their deployment in the region extended.
"The Iranian threat to our forces in the region remains," Shanahan said.
Speaking in Abu Dhabi, Bolton linked the rocket fire in Baghdad, the alleged sabotage of the ships and the drone attack by Yemen's rebels, describing them as a response from Iran and its proxies.