US president Donald Trump said on Thursday he had put Iran “on notice” after it conducted a ballistic missile test earlier this week and Tehran-backed rebels in Yemen targeted a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea.
“Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the US made with them!” Mr Trump tweeted, adding that “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the US came along and gave it a lifeline”.
Mr Trump’s remarks came as Germany’s Die Welt newspaper cited German intelligence sources as saying that Iran had also test-fired a new cruise missile called the Sumar on Sunday that is believed to be capable of carrying a nuclear weapon and has an upper range of 3,000 kilometres. The missile’s technical capabilities were not possible to verify.
Cruise missiles can be controlled in flight, and also fly at lower altitudes than ballistic missiles, making them a much harder target for missile defence systems. According to a Reuters translation, a security expert told Die Welt that cruise missiles are not covered by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal agreed between Iran and world powers in July 2015.
Mr Trump’s tweets on Thursday reiterated a message delivered by his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, on Wednesday night. Sunday’s “provocative” ballistic missile test and the Houthi ship attack, which was announced by the Saudi-led coalition on Monday, underscore “Iran’s destabilising behaviour across the entire Middle East”, Mr Flynn said.
The national security adviser also claimed the administration of Barack Obama had “failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions, including weapons transfers, support for terrorism and other violations of international norms”.
Senior White House officials said later that Iran was providing weapons, financing and training to the Houthi rebels in order to “build a long-term presence in Yemen”.
Mr Flynn did not say the latest Iranian ballistic missile test was a violation of the nuclear accord, but that it was “in defiance” of it. Resolution 2231 only “calls upon” Iran to refrain from ballistic missile activity designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. Iranian officials claim the missiles are not designed for this purpose and are purely defensive. Previous Iranian missile tests carried out since the nuclear deal took effect in January last year have been found by the Security Council to not be in breach of the accord.
Neither the US president nor Mr Flynn provided details of what exactly putting Iran on notice meant in practice, or if there would be a new strategy of containing Tehran’s regional ambitions – something that Washington’s Gulf partners have long called for.
Mr Trump spoke with Saudi and Emirati leaders last week, and the new US defence secretary, James Mattis, spoke with his Saudi counterpart on Tuesday.
Russia, with whom Mr Trump wants increased cooperation to fight extremists in the Middle East, is a partner of Tehran and does not consider the missile tests a violation.
White House national security officials would not rule out any response, including military action, saying only that “a range of options” are being considered, including economic sanctions and increased support for Iran’s adversaries.
“We do not want to be premature or rash or take any action that would foreclose options or unnecessarily contribute to a negative response,” one of the officials said.
Also on Thursday, defence minster Hossein Dehghan provided Iran’s first confirmation that a new medium-range ballistic missile was tested on Sunday. He said it was successful, contrary to US claims that it malfunctioned and detonated prematurely.
“The test was not a violation of a nuclear deal with world powers or any UN resolution,” Mr told Iranian state media.
Mr Dehghan’s confirmation came as a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, responded to the US warnings.
“This is not the first time that an inexperienced person has threatened Iran … the American government will understand that threatening Iran is useless,” Ali Akbar Velayati told Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, referring to Mr Trump.