WASHINGTON—The Trump administration exchanged threats with Iran, turning to a longstanding security concern and a top foreign-policy focus of President Donald Trump’s key supporters.
In a Twitter message addressed “To Iranian President Rouhani,” Mr. Trump wrote: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
The tweet late Sunday night appeared to refer to comments by President Hassan Rouhani warning the Trump administration against continuing hard-line policies against Iran.
“America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” Mr. Rouhani said earlier. The comments were tougher than usual for the Iranian president, who is seen in the Iranian context as a moderate.
Iranian officials on Monday warned they would retaliate against any U.S. military action.
To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!
Mr. Trump’s threat wasn’t accompanied by any U.S. military preparations. The U.S. military has been gradually easing its posture in the Middle East region in recent months, reflecting what Pentagon officials said was a drop-off in unsafe or provocative Iranian acts toward ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz since late last year. As of Monday, the Pentagon hadn’t begun to move any U.S. forces or shift military posture near Iran.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders dismissed suggestions from some Democrats that the president was trying to distract from his political troubles at home, including negative reaction to his rapport during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Helsinki.
“The president is responding to Iran and he’s not going to allow them to continue to make threats against America,” she told reporters Monday. “If anyone’s inciting anything, look no further than to Iran…The president has the ability, unlike a lot of those in the media, to focus on more than one issue at a time.”
John Bolton, the national security adviser, reiterated the president’s warning on Monday.
“I spoke to the president over the last several days, and President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before,” he said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an address in Los Angeles on Sunday, castigated Iran’s clerical leaders and called on other countries to join the U.S. campaign of pressure and sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said the U.S. and its allies “don’t understand any other language than force,” as he announced a new production line of air-to-air missiles in Tehran.
And Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, warned Mr. Trump on Twitter that 50,000 U.S. troops are in range of Iranian weapons.
The U.S. previously maintained an aircraft-carrier strike group in the Middle East but doesn’t have one there now. The USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier left the region last week and the Navy has no immediate plans to replace it, defense officials said.
During its most recent deployment to the region, the Truman never passed through the Suez Canal, instead positioning itself in the Mediterranean Sea between the Middle East and Europe. The group conducted strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria from the eastern Mediterranean.
In recent weeks, the most prominent Navy presence in the Middle East was the amphibious warship USS Iwo Jima, which arrived in the Persian Gulf last month and has since left.
Earlier this month the U.S. Navy quietly deployed the three-ship Essex Amphibious Ready Group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which will operate in both the Middle East and the Western Pacific.
Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord in May, and the administration later issued 12 demands for a new deal. Mr. Pompeo warned at the time that the U.S. would impose the “strongest sanctions in history” unless Iran agreed. Tehran swiftly rejected the terms, which include one requiring a wholesale change in its military posture in the Middle East, where it is backing groups of fighters in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. is at odds with European allies over its decision to leave the Iran nuclear agreement, but allied governments will have difficulty protecting their businesses from the return of U.S. sanctions. For example, the U.S. wants countries to cut back their consumption of Iranian oil by November, and have warned of so-called secondary sanctions against businesses and governments that don’t comply.
Mr. Pompeo in his speech on Sunday called Iran’s religious leaders “hypocritical holy men.” The country “is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government,” he said, saying its leaders have taken vast amounts of wealth at the expense of the country’s people. “We are asking all nations who are sick and tired of the Islamic Republic’s destructive behavior to join our pressure campaign,” Mr. Pompeo said.
He has drawn parallels to the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy on North Korea, which has been subjected to sanctions intended to force it to give up its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missiles. In Iran’s case, U.S. measures would include pressure on countries to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil to zero, with very few case-by-case exemptions.
Mr. Trump’s Sunday tweet was similar to a threat he made to North Korea in front of reporters last August—of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
A month later, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un responded, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.”
The escalating rhetoric could push Iran to seek to gain more leverage over the U.S. before entering into any kind of talks, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based advocacy group. It would be a mistake, Mr. Parsi continued, to compare the problems of Iran and North Korea because U.S. allies in the Middle East were unlikely to act as brokers.
“Allies of the U.S. have been pushing the U.S. to go to war with Iran for more than 15 years,” Mr. Parsi said, calling for European countries to make strong statements to de-escalate the situation.
European countries, which remain committed to the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, told Iran earlier this month they were exploring activating accounts for the Iranian central bank with their national central banks in a bid to open a financial channel to keep the agreement alive.
Iran’s economy is under severe strain, and hundreds of demonstrations have erupted across the country over rising prices, corruption and environmental damage. The value of the country’s currency is down by nearly half since January. Iranians have also expressed increasing frustration with the country’s lack of political and social freedoms.
—Farnaz Fassihi and Sune Engel Rasmussen contributed to this article.
Appeared in the July 24, 2018, print edition.