Iran claims right to respond to 'unacceptable' U.S. sanctions
Saudi Arabia blames Tehran for drone attacks, while newspaper calls on U.S. to retaliate
Iran's foreign minister said Thursday that sanctions imposed by the Trump administration are "unacceptable," but his country is committed to an international nuclear deal that has steadily unravelled amid rising tensions.
On a visit to Tokyo, Mohammad Zarif defended Iran's right to respond to the U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal last year and the imposition of sanctions.
"We believe that escalation by the United States is unacceptable and uncalled for. We have exercised maximum restraints," he said. In other comments carried on the semi-official Mehr news agency, Zarif was quoted as saying "a multilateral deal cannot be treated unilaterally."
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, blamed Tehran for a drone attack by Yemen's rebels that knocked out a key oil pipeline and a newspaper close to the palace called for the U.S. to carry out "surgical" strikes on Iran, adding a new layer of tension to the standoff in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he hoped the U.S. was not heading to war with Iran as he met with Switzerland President Ueli Maurer, whose nation has served as a diplomatic conduit between the two countries.
Asked by reporters if Washington was going to war with Tehran, Trump responded "hope not" as he greeted Maurer at the White House.
Tensions have flared in recent weeks after the U.S. sent warships and bombers to the region to counter an alleged threat from Iran. Four oil tankers were targeted in alleged sabotage attacks Sunday off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and drones struck a Saudi oil pipeline Tuesday in an attack claimed by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman tweeted Thursday that Tehran had ordered "the terrorist acts" on the pipeline.
"The attack by the Iranian-backed Houthi militias against the two Aramco pumping stations proves that these militias are merely a tool that Iran's regime uses to implement its expansionist agenda in the region," he wrote.
Iran has been accused by the U.S. and the UN of supplying ballistic missile technology and arms to the Houthis, which Tehran denies.
An Arab News editorial, published in English, said it's "clear that [U.S.] sanctions are not sending the right message" and that "they must be hit hard," without elaborating on what specific targets should be struck.
At least 6 killed in airstrikes in Yemen
The Saudi-led coalition conducted airstrikes on Houthi targets in the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, killing at least six people, including four children. At least 40 other people were wounded, according to Yemen's health ministry.
Residents of Sanaa scrambled to pull wounded people from the rubble of a building hit by the airstrikes. Fawaz Ahmed told The Associated Press he saw three bodies being retrieved from the rubble — a father, mother and child, all buried together. Yemen's Health Ministry said the strikes killed six people, including four children, and wounded more than 40.
The ministry said 41 people, including two women of Russian nationality, were also wounded.
A Saudi-led coalition has been at war with the Houthis since 2015 and carries out near-daily airstrikes. The drone attacks on the pipeline marked one of the rebels' deepest and most significant strikes inside Saudi territory since the conflict began.
The Saudi-led coalition acknowledged in a statement it had struck a number of Houthi targets on Thursday, including what it said were weapons depots and military sites.
Nuclear deal at core of dispute
At the root of the recent spike in Persian Gulf tensions appears to be Trump's decision a year ago to pull the U.S. from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers, embarking on a maximalist sanctions campaign against Tehran to cripple the country's economy.
In response, Iran's supreme leader issued a veiled threat Tuesday, saying it wouldn't be difficult for the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. He also said that while his country would not negotiate with the United States, Iran is not seeking war.
Watch as Iran-U.S. tensions continue to heat up:
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department ordered all nonessential government staff to leave Iraq, and Germany and the Netherlands both suspended their military assistance programs in the country in the latest sign of tensions.
The movement of diplomatic personnel is often done in times of conflict, but what is driving the decisions from the White House remains unclear. Iraq is home to powerful pro-Iranian militias, while also hosting more than 5,000 American troops. The U.S. military's Central Command said without elaborating that its troops were on high alert.
Last week, U.S. officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on U.S. forces and interests in the Middle East, but Washington has not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat.
A senior British officer in the U.S.-backed coalition fighting ISIS appeared to push back against the U.S. claims, telling reporters earlier in the week that there had been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. Maj.-Gen. Chris Ghika's comments exposed international skepticism over the American military buildup.
Iran recently threatened it might resume higher enrichment by July 7, beyond the level permitted by the current deal between Tehran and world powers. The U.S. pulled out of the deal last year, reimposing sanctions that penalize countries and global companies that do business with Iran.
Though Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, scientists say the time needed to reach the 90 per cent threshold for weapons-grade uranium is halved once uranium is enriched to around 20 per cent.
With files from Reuters