Pompeo holds talks in Saudi Arabia as Iran threatens U.S. drones

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks Monday with the Saudi king and crown prince after days of mounting tensions with Iran following the downing of a U.S drone last week, and after President Donald Trump pulled back from the brink of retaliatory military strikes.

Iran’s naval commander, meanwhile, warned that Iranian forces wouldn’t hesitate to act again and shoot down more U.S. surveillance drones that violate Iranian airspace.

The U.S. denies the drone, valued at more than $ 100 million US, violated Iranian airspace. Trump said he backed away from planned strikes after learning 150 people would be killed, but that military action remained an option.

On Monday, Pompeo held separate talks with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi port city of Jeddah to discuss the escalation with Iran.

Pompeo did not discuss the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi when the U.S. secretary of state met with Saudi Arabia’s king, a senior State Department official told journalists travelling with him in the region.

“It did not” come up, the official said.

The official could not confirm if the case had been raised with the Saudi crown prince, who met with Pompeo later.

From the kingdom, Pompeo will travel to the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, another close U.S. ally. The regional stops, made on his way to India, may be aimed at reassuring Washington’s Sunni Gulf Arab allies that the White House remains committed to maintaining pressure on Shiite Iran following Trump’s last-minute about face, which likely raised questions about U.S. willingness to use force against the Islamic Republic.

In what it says are defensive moves, the U.S. has built up its military presence around the Persian Gulf in recent weeks.

Tensions have been mounting since Trump last year withdrew the U.S. from a global nuclear deal with Iran and began pressuring Tehran with economic sanctions. A fresh round of Iran sanctions is to be announced Monday in a bid to force the Iranian leadership into talks. Iran has decried the U.S. sanctions, which essentially bar Iran from selling its oil internationally, as “economic terrorism.”

Pompeo wants ‘global coalition’ against Iran

Iran’s naval commander, Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi, issued a warning to Washington that Tehran is capable of shooting down other American spy drones that violate Iranian airspace. Khanzadi spoke Monday during a meeting with a group of defence officials in Iran.

“We confidently say that the crushing response can always be repeated, and the enemy knows it,” Khanzadi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim news agency during a meeting with a group of defence officials.

This image shows the purported wreckage of a U.S. drone that was downed by Iran last week. (Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/Handout via Reuters)

Before his departure to the kingdom, Pompeo said he wants to build a global coalition against Iran.

“We’ll be talking with them about how to make sure that we are all strategically aligned, and how we can build out a global coalition, a coalition not only throughout the Gulf states, but in Asia and in Europe, that understands this challenge as it is prepared to push back against the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” Pompeo said about Iran.

But even as Pompeo delivered his tough talk, he echoed Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence in saying the U.S. is prepared to negotiate with Iran, without preconditions, in a bid to ease tensions.

“They know precisely how to find us,” Pompeo said.

Blunt warnings from Trump administration

Trump initially said Iran had made a “very big mistake” and it was “hard to believe” shooting down the drone last Thursday was not intentional. But he also said over the weekend that he appreciated Iran’s decision to not shoot down a manned U.S. spy plane, and he opined about eventually becoming Iran’s “best friend” if Tehran ultimately agrees to abandon its drive to build nuclear weapons and he helps the country turn around its crippled economy.

Iran has long said its nuclear program is for purely peaceful energy purposes.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, stepped in during a visit to Jerusalem on Sunday with a blunt warning: Iran should not “mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness” after Trump called off the military strike.

Trump said he backed away from the planned strikes after learning that about 150 people would be killed, but he said the military option remained on the table.

A longtime Iran hawk, Bolton emphasized that the U.S. reserved the right to attack at a later point.

“No one has granted them a hunting license in the Middle East. As President Trump said on Friday our military is rebuilt, new and ready to go,” Bolton said during an appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself a longtime and outspoken Iran critic.

On Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blamed the U.S.’s “interventionist military presence” for fanning the flames.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blamed the ‘interventionist military presence’ of the United States for exacerbating the tensions between the two countries. (Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)

Pompeo, who addressed reporters from the tarmac before he boarded his airplane in Washington, declared the goal of his talks with the Saudi kingdom and the UAE is to deny Iran “the resources to foment terror, to build out their nuclear weapon system, to build out their missile program.”

U.S. military cyber forces on Thursday launched a strike against Iranian military computer systems, according to U.S. officials. The cyberattacks disabled Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps computer systems that controlled its rocket and missile launchers, the officials said.

Abbas Mousavi, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Sunday the U.S. “conducted a cyber operation contrary to international law.”

Throughout the recent crisis, Trump has wavered between bellicose language and actions toward Iran and a more accommodating tone, including a plea for negotiations. Iran has said it is not interested in a dialogue with Trump. His administration is aiming to cripple Iran’s economy and force policy changes by reimposing sanctions, including on Iranian oil exports.

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