Trump adviser John Bolton warns Iran faces 'strong response' if Persian Gulf attacked

U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser warns Iran that any attacks in the Persian Gulf will draw a "very strong response," only two days after his boss said Washington wasn't "looking to hurt Iran at all."

U.S. official, without evidence, blames Tehran for alleged sabotage of 4 tankers near U.A.E.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, pictured outside the White House in April, said the only reason for Iran to back out of the nuclear deal was to seek nuclear weapons. (Chip Somodevilla, File/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser warned Iran on Wednesday that any attacks in the Persian Gulf will draw a "very strong response," taking a hardline approach with Tehran after his boss only two days earlier said the country 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, where former defence secretary Jim Mattis recently delivered a warning that "unilateralism will not work" in confronting Iran.

The duelling 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 co-ordinated drone attack on Saudi Arabia by Yemen's Iran-allied Houthi rebels.

On Wednesday, Bolton told journalists 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 Washington unilaterally withdrew from the unraveling agreement.

However, Bolton stressed the U.S. has not seen any further Iranian attacks in the time since, something he attributed to military deployments — the U.S. recently sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. But he warned the U.S. would strike back if 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, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He declined to have his remarks recorded by journalists.

A longtime hawk on Iran, 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 U.A.E. coast, but 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?"

Sailors check the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, in the Arabian Sea, on May 19. Washington recently ordered the aircraft carrier and other warships to the Persian Gulf. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge/U.S. Navy via AP)

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has repeatedly criticized Bolton as a warmonger. Abbas Mousavi, a spokesperson for Iran's Foreign Ministry, said later on Wednesday that Bolton's remarks were a "ridiculous accusation."

Separately in Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani said the "road is not closed" when it comes to talks with the U.S. — if it returns to the nuclear deal. However, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying on his website later on Wednesday that the country will not negotiate with the United States "because negotiation has no benefit and carries harm."

He said Iran had no problems negotiating with Europeans and other countries, but added, "We will not negotiate over the core values of the revolution. We will not negotiate over our military capabilities."

Saudi officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Bolton's claim on Yanbu, which is the terminus, or end point, of the kingdom's East-West Pipeline.

In recent weeks, tensions have soared as the U.S. beefed up its military presence in the Persian Gulf in response to a still-unexplained threat from Iran.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, right, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad at the Austrian Chamber of Commerce on July 4, 2018 in Vienna, Austria. Rouhani says talks could open again with the U.S. if it returns to the Iranian nuclear deal. (Michael Gruber/Getty Images)

Iran sets deadline 

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord as he believes it didn't go far enough in limiting the Iranian nuclear program, nor did it address Iran's ballistic missile program.

Bolton said that without more nuclear power plants, it made no sense for Iran to stockpile more low-enriched uranium as it now plans to do. But the U.S. also earlier cut off Iran's ability to sell its uranium to Russia in exchange for unprocessed yellow-cake uranium.

Iran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to offer better terms to the unraveling nuclear deal, otherwise it will resume enrichment closer to weapons level.

Bolton declined to say what the U.S. would do in response to that but he criticized Iran's actions.

"There's no reason for them to do any of that unless that's part of an effort to reduce the breakout time to produce nuclear weapons," Bolton said. "That's a very serious issue if they continue to do that."

Iran long has insisted its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. However, Western powers pushed for the nuclear deal to limit Iran's ability to seek atomic weapons.

"This is just more graphic evidence that it hasn't constrained their continuing desire to have nuclear weapons," Bolton added. "It certainly hasn't reduced their terrorist activities in the region that we just discussed or their other malign behaviour in their use of conventional forces."

With files from Reuters