President Donald Trump warned Tehran to stop threatening America and suggested the US would destroy the Islamic Republic if there was a military conflict, in comments that once again raised the spectre of war in the Middle East.
“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” Mr Trump tweeted on Sunday.
Mr Trump has maintained a hardline stance towards the Iranian leadership since taking office, including his decision a year ago to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. Over the past few weeks, his team has struck an even tougher note, citing unreleased intelligence about possible attacks on US forces in the region.
The US last week said it would withdraw all non-essential personnel from its diplomatic missions in Iraq, sparking fears that Mr Trump was preparing to take military action.
That move came a week after John Bolton, the US national security adviser who called for regime change as a private citizen, said the US would send an aircraft carrier group with accompanying warships and B-52 bombers to the Middle East.
It was unclear if Mr Trump on Sunday was referring to a rocket attack on the area in Baghdad that houses the US embassy. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Mr Trump said last July that Iran would “suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered” if it threatened the US.
Mr Trump has kept Tehran on edge in recent weeks by mixing threats with statements downplaying the odds of war. Asked on Thursday if the US was heading for military conflict with Iran, Mr Trump responded: “I hope not”.
The New York Times on Thursday said Mr Trump had told Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of defence, that he did not want war with Iran. Earlier in the week, the president described as “fake news” reports that the Pentagon had drawn up plans — at Mr Bolton’s request — that envisioned sending 120,000 troops to the region.
At the same time that he dismissed the reports about the war plan, however, Mr Trump stressed that he would send “a hell of a lot more” troops than 120,000 if America ended up engaged in a military conflict with the Islamic Republic.
US media have reported that the spike in concern about Iran was prompted by intelligence showing that Iran had put missiles on small boats. Democrats and some Republicans have criticised the White House for raising the threat of war without briefing Congress on the intelligence. In the face of the criticism, US intelligence is working to declassify photographs of the alleged Iranian missiles.
Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister who has accused Mr Bolton of leading a group of anti-Iran officials pushing war, on Friday tweeted: “With the #B_Team doing one thing & @realDonaldTrump saying another thing, it is apparently the US that ‘doesn’t know what to think’.”
Mr Bolton and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state who is also an Iran hawk, argue that the US is not pushing for regime change. They say US efforts to put pressure on the regime — including reimposing sanctions after withdrawing from the nuclear deal — are simply designed to persuade Tehran to change its behaviour.
But some foreign policy experts are sceptical, partly because Mr Bolton was accused during the Bush administration of skewing intelligence to justify war against Iraq. Shortly before joining the Trump White House, he also called for regime change in Iran.
On the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution in February, Mr Bolton released a video message aimed at the Iranian leadership, in which he said: “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy”.
Follow Demetri on Twitter: @dimi