Donald Trump’s administration declared that it was putting Iran “on notice” on Wednesday, signalling both a tougher US line with Tehran and a new test of relations after a weekend missile test by the Islamic republic.
During his campaign, Mr Trump vowed to rip up a 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and other world powers with Tehran but has taken no public steps to deliver on that since taking office.
In a terse statement delivered on Wednesday by retired general Michael Flynn, the new national security adviser, the White House signalled that was about to change, however, as the Trump administration faced its first potential security-related foreign policy crisis.
“Recent Iranian actions, including a provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants [from Yemen], underscore what should have been clear to the international community all along about Iran’s destabilising behaviour across the Middle East,” Mr Flynn said. “As of today we are officially putting Iran on notice.”
Both Mr Flynn and Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, declined to elaborate on what that mean.
Speaking on background later on Wednesday, a senior White House official called Iran’s actions “highly provocative” and warned that Tehran was attempting to destabilise the region through its support for the Houthi, which it said risked “intensifying the conflict in Yemen”.
“We are going to take appropriate action,” the official said, repeatedly asserting that the administration was “in a deliberative process” about future steps.
“There are a large range of options available to the administration from financial and economic to pursuing other options related to support,” the official said.
Mr Flynn’s statement immediately prompted questions from analysts and warnings that it risked being unnecessarily provocative.
“This is the kind of thing that brings people to a war footing and this is not good,” retired general Mark Hertling told CNN. “It is very provocative language.”
Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council called Mr Flynn’s statement a “reckless” response to a “needless provocation” by Tehran.
“While [Mr] Flynn’s remarks could be construed as simply bluster, they will beget an Iranian response which in turn will beget further threats by the US,” he said. “At some point, this escalatory cycle that started with bluster may end in war.”
Mr Flynn’s comments came as the US Senate voted to confirm Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive, as Mr Trump’s secretary of state.
In his statement, Mr Flynn said that Sunday’s ballistic missile launch had been in violation of a UN Security Council resolution. He called the latest moves by Iran part of a recent “series of incidents” that illustrated how “Iran continues to threaten US friends and allies in the region”.
He also blamed the Obama administration for failing to “respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions” including its support for international terrorism and again criticised the 2015 nuclear deal signed by the US.
“President Trump has severely criticised the various agreements reached between Iran and the Obama Administration, as well as the United Nations — as being weak and ineffective,” he said. “Instead of being thankful to the United States for these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened.”
The tough language was welcomed by Republicans in Congress.
Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said that he had been briefed by Mr Flynn on Wednesday.
“I am very encouraged by the seriousness with which President Trump is approaching the full range of threats Iran poses to American interests. It is clear that Iran will no longer be given a pass and will be held accountable for its illicit behaviour,” he said.
The government in Tehran did not have any immediate reaction to the White House statement. Earlier on Wednesday, Iran’s defence minister confirmed the missile test and insisted it neither violated the nuclear agreement nor a UN resolution.
“The latest test has been in line with our plans and we will not allow any aliens to interfere in our defence affairs,” Hossein Dehghan told local reporters.
Sample the FT’s top stories for a week
You select the topic, we deliver the news.