Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday he wants to build a global coalition against Iran during urgent consultations in the Middle East, following a week of crisis that saw the United States pull back from the brink of a military strike on Iran.
Pompeo spoke as he left Washington for Saudi Arabia, followed by the United Arab Emirates, Sunni Arab allies that are alarmed by Shiite Iran's increasing assertiveness and are working to limit its influence in the region. His stops in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi were hastily arranged late last week as additions to a trip to India from where he will join President Donald Trump in Japan and South Korea. But they were not announced until immediately before his departure in a sign of fast-moving and unpredictable developments.
"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 President Donald 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. Those 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.
"They know precisely how to find us," Pompeo said.
It was a week of topsy-turvy pronouncements on U.S. policy toward Iran that careened between the bellicose, the conciliatory and back again after Iran shot down an American military drone and boasted it would not bow to Washington's pressure.
Trump initially said Iran had made a "very big mistake" and that it was "hard to believe" that shooting down the drone on Thursday was not intentional. He later said he thought it was an unintentional act carried out by a "loose and stupid" Iranian and called off retaliatory military strikes against Iran. On Saturday, Trump reversed himself and claimed that Iran had acted "knowingly."
But Trump 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.
Then Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, stepped in Sunday with a blunt warning from Jerusalem, where he was traveling. Bolton said 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.
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 United States' "interventionist military presence" for fanning the flames. He was quoted by the official IRNA news agency. Shortly thereafter, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched an attack against an airport in southern Saudi Arabia, killing one person and wounding seven others, according to the Saudi military. Such attacks have been cited by Saudi and U.S. officials as examples of Iran's "malign behavior" in the Middle East.
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."
"We are going to deny them the resources they need to do that, thereby keep American interests and American people safe all around the world," said Pompeo, who was due to arrive in the region after one person was killed and seven others were wounded in an attack by Iranian-allied Yemeni rebels on an airport in Saudi Arabia on Sunday evening, the Saudi military said.
The downing of the unmanned aircraft marked a new high in the rising tensions between the United States and Iran. The Trump administration has vowed to combine a "maximum pressure" campaign of economic sanctions with a buildup of American forces in the region, following the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
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.
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 re-imposing sanctions, including on Iranian oil exports.