Picture: 123RF/budastock
Picture: 123RF/budastock

Geneva/Dubai  — Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday Iran would not wage war against any nation, while Russia told the US it should drop what it called provocative plans to deploy more troops to the Middle East.

Fear of a US-Iran  confrontation has mounted since Washington blamed its long-time foe for Thursday’s attacks on two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane.

Relations had already deteriorated with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from an international pact under which Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

Since exiting that accord in May last year, Trump has restored and extended US sanctions, forcing countries around the world to boycott Iranian oil or also face sanctions.

Tehran, which denies involvement in tanker attacks last week and in May, has urged other signatories to act to save the nuclear pact or see Iran turn its back on the deal.

On Monday, Iran warned it would soon breach limits on how much enriched uranium it can stockpile under a 2015 nuclear deal, which had sought to limit its nuclear capabilities.

Exceeding the uranium cap at the heart of the accord could prompt a diplomatic crisis, forcing the other signatories, which include China, Russia and European powers, to confront Iran.

The White House National Security Council condemned the development as “nuclear blackmail.”

Calls for restraint

The worsening standoff drew calls for restraint from Russia and China, both signatories of the nuclear accord.

China’s top diplomat warned that the world should not open a “Pandora’s Box” in the Middle East, as he denounced US pressure on Iran and called on it not to drop out of the landmark nuclear deal.

Russia told the US to cease actions that looked like a conscious attempt to provoke war with Iran, and urged restraint on all sides.

“What we see are unending and sustained US attempts to crank up political, psychological, economic and yes, military pressure on Iran in quite a provocative way,” Russian news agencies reported deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.

These actions "cannot be assessed as anything but a conscious course to provoke war”, he said.

Acting  US defence secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday announced the deployment of about 1,000 more troops to the Middle East for what he said were defensive purposes, citing concern about a threat from Iran.

The new US deployment is in addition to a 1,500-troop increase announced last month in response to tanker attacks in May. Washington previously tightened sanctions, ordering all countries and companies to halt imports of Iranian oil or be banished from the global financial system.

Rouhani said Iran did not seek conflict and dismissed US efforts to isolate Iran, suggesting the Trump administration was inexperienced in international affairs.

“Iran will not wage war against any nation,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state TV.

“Despite all of the Americans’ efforts in the region and their desire to cut off our ties with all of the world and their desire to keep Iran secluded, they have been unsuccessful.”

On Monday, Iranian officials made several assertive comments about security. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said Iran was responsible for Gulf security and urged US forces to leave the region.

Heightened Iran-US tension has stoked fear of increased violence in countries where Iran and its Gulf Arab regional rivals are locked in a  struggle for influence.

Saudi air defences intercepted two drones fired by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group, one of them targeting a residential area in the southern Saudi city of Abha, Saudi media reported on Tuesday. The group’s Al Masirah TV said the Houthis launched drone attacks on Abha airport.

Three rockets hit military base used by US forces north of Baghdad late on Monday, an Iraqi military statement said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

US officials said last month there was an increased threat from Iran-backed militias against US interests in Iraq, and the US embassy in Baghdad moved  hundreds of staff to safety.

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was intended to avert the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

The Trump administration says the deal, negotiated by his Democratic predecessor, fails to address Iran’s missile programme and does not punish it for waging proxy wars in other Middle East countries.

Rouhani said on Monday the collapse of the deal would not be in the interests of the region or the world. Russia’s Ryabkov said Moscow had repeatedly warned Washington and its regional allies against the “unthinking and reckless pumping up of tensions in an explosive region”.

In Beijing, Chinese state councillor Wang Yi told reporters the US should not use “extreme pressure” to resolve issues with Iran. China, a close energy partner of Iran, was “very concerned” about the situation in the Gulf and with Iran, and urged all sides to ease tension.