US secretary of state Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia in a hastily arranged visit amid mounting tensions between Washington and Tehran as Iran’s navy chief warned Iranian forces would not hesitate to shoot down more US surveillance drones from their skies.
The downing of the drone, valued at more than 100 million US dollars, saw the United States pull back from the brink of a military strike on Iran after President Donald Trump last week called off strikes in retaliation.
Iran’s naval commander, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, threatened Washington, saying that Tehran is capable of shooting down other American spy drones that violate Iranian airspace.
“We confidently say that the crushing response can always be repeated, and the enemy knows it,” Mr Khanzadi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Tasnim news agency during a meeting with a group of defence officials.
Tensions have been mounting since Mr Trump last year withdrew the US from a global nuclear deal with Iran and began pressuring Tehran with economic sanctions.
A fresh round of Iran sanctions is to be announced on Monday in a bid to force the Iranian leadership into talks.
Iran has decried the US sanctions, which essentially bar Iran from selling its oil internationally, as “economic terrorism”.
Mr Pompeo, considered a hard-liner in the Trump administration, is expected to meet with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi city of Jiddah, before heading to Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, another close US ally and partner.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are alarmed by Iran’s military reach and are working to limit its influence in the region.
On the eve of Mr Pompeo’s visit to the kingdom, Yemen’s Iranian-allied rebels attacked a Saudi airport near the Saudi-Yemen border, killing a Syrian resident and wounding 21 other civilians, the Saudi military said.
The Houthi rebels claimed they used bomb-laden drones in the attack on the Abha airport, the second in less than two weeks.
Saudi Arabia has been at war with the rebel Houthis in Yemen for more than four years.
The Houthis say the attacks targeting the kingdom are a response to relentless Saudi airstrikes on Yemen that have killed thousands.
Before his departure to the kingdom, Mr 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,” Mr Pompeo said about Iran.
But even as Mr Pompeo delivered his tough talk, he echoed Mr Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in saying the US is prepared to negotiate with Iran, without preconditions, in a bid to ease tensions.
“They know precisely how to find us,” Mr Pompeo said.
Mr Trump initially said Iran had made a “very big mistake” and that it was “hard to believe” that 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 US 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 programme is for purely for peaceful energy purposes.
Mr Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, stepped in during a visit to Jerusalem on Sunday with a blunt warning, saying Iran should not “mistake US prudence and discretion for weakness” after Trump called off the military strike.
Mr 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, Mr Bolton emphasised that the US reserved the right to attack at a later point.
“No one has granted them a hunting licence in the Middle East.
“As President Trump said on Friday our military is rebuilt, new and ready to go,” Mr 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 United States’ “interventionist military presence” for fanning the flames.
Mr 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 programme”.
US military cyber forces on Thursday launched a strike against Iranian military computer systems, according to US officials.
The cyberattacks disabled Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps computer systems that controlled its rocket and missile launchers, the officials said.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said the US “conducted a cyber operation contrary to international law”.
Throughout the recent crisis, Mr 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 Mr Trump.
His administration is aiming to cripple Iran’s economy and force policy changes by re-imposing sanctions, including on Iranian oil exports.