TEHRAN, July 29, (Agencies): A defiant Iran vowed on Saturday to press ahead with its missile programme and condemned new US sanctions, as tensions rise after the West hardened its tone against the Islamic republic.
In the latest incident on the ground, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said the US Navy had approached their patrol vessels in the Gulf and fired flares.
“At 4 pm (1130 GMT) on Friday, the supercarrier USS Nimitz and its accompanying warship, while being monitored by the Guards’ frigates, flew a helicopter near the Resalat oil and gas platform and approached the force’s ships,” the paramilitary force said.
“The Americans in a provocative and unprofessional move, sent a warning message to the frigates and fired flares,” it said. The Guards “ignored the unconventional move by the US ships and continued their mission.”
Three days earlier, a US Navy patrol ship fired warning shots at a Guards boat in the Gulf as it closed in on the American vessel, according to US officials.
The Guards denied approaching the US ship in Tuesday’s incident and said it was the American vessel that had been at fault.
There have been a string of close encounters between US ships and Iranian vessels in the Gulf in recent months.
On the political battlefield, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told state broadcaster IRIB that Tehran condemned new US sanctions against its missile programme, which President Donald Trump is set to sign into law, and vowed to press on.
“We will continue with full power our missile programme,” he said. “We consider the action by the US as hostile, reprehensible and unacceptable, and it’s ultimately an effort to weaken the nuclear deal.”
Ghasemi was referring to a 2015 agreement between Iran and US-led world powers that lifted some sanctions on Tehran in return for curbs on the country’s nuclear programme.
“The military and missile fields … are our domestic policies and others have no right to intervene or comment on them,” the spokesman said.
The sanctions bill, which also targets Russia and North Korea, was passed by the US Senate on Thursday, two days after being approved by the House of Representatives.
Separately on Friday, Washington imposed new sanctions targeting Iran’s missile programme, one day after Tehran tested a satellite-launch rocket.
Iranian state television broadcast footage of the takeoff from the Imam Khomeini space centre in Semnan province in the east of the country.
The launch vehicle was capable of propelling a satellite weighing 550 pounds (250 kgs) into orbit at an altitude of 300 miles (500 kms), it said.
Western governments suspect Iran of trying to develop the technology for longer-range missiles with conventional or nuclear payloads, a charge denied by Tehran, which insists its space programme has purely peaceful aims.
In a joint statement, Britain, France, Germany and the US condemned Tehran’s “destabilising” action, saying the test was in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 that endorsed the nuclear deal.
“We call on Iran not to conduct any further ballistic missile launches and related activities,” they said.
Resolution 2231 called on Iran not to test ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and an arms embargo has remained in place.
The United States has had no diplomatic ties with Iran since 1980, and Trump has halted the direct contacts initiated by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Tensions have mounted between Washington and Tehran since Trump took office six months ago vowing to be the best friend of Israel.
At UN headquarters in New York on Friday, US envoy Nikki Haley expressed mistrust of Iran.
“Iran’s widespread support for terrorists tells us we can’t trust them. Iran’s breaking its obligation on missile testing tells us we can’t trust them. Yesterday’s launch proves that yet again,” she said.
Despite his electoral promise to tear apart what he once called “the worst deal ever”, Trump has so far respected the nuclear agreement.
The joint US-European statement said that Iran’s latest test features technology related to “ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons”.
Iran insists it has “proven its compliance with the nuclear deal” as repeatedly confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“Iran does not recognise any limits to its scientific and technological progress and will not wait for the approval or permission of any country regarding the activities of its scientists and experts,” the foreign ministry spokesman said.
Sanctions on Iranian firms
The United States imposed sanctions on Friday on six subsidiaries of a company key to Iran’s ballistic missile program, citing continued “provocative actions” like Tehran’s launch of a rocket capable of putting a satellite into orbit.
Iranian state television reported on Thursday that Iran had successfully tested a rocket that can deliver satellites into orbit, an action the United States and others say breaches a UN Security Council resolution because of its potential use in ballistic missile development.
A joint statement on Friday from the United States, France, Germany and Britain said the launch was inconsistent with a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran not to conduct such tests.
The US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on six Iranian firms owned or controlled by the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group. The move enables the US government to block any company property under its jurisdiction and prevents US citizens from doing business with the firms.
“These sanctions … underscore the United States’ deep concerns with Iran’s continued development and testing of ballistic missiles and other provocative behavior,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement.
“The US government will continue to aggressively counter Iran’s ballistic missile-related activity, whether it be a provocative space launch … or likely support to Yemeni Houthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia such as occurred this past weekend,” Mnuchin said.
The six Shahid Hemmat units targeted by the US sanctions manufacture missile components, missile airframes, liquid-propellant ballistic missile engines, liquid propellant, guidance and control systems. They also do missile-related research and maintenance.
The Treasury move was announced just hours after the US Senate voted almost unanimously to impose new sanctions on Iran, Russia and North Korea.
The measure put President Donald Trump, who has sought better ties with Russia, in a tough position, forcing him to either sign the bill into law or anger his party by vetoing it.
The sanctions in that bill also target Iran’s missile development programs as well as human rights abuses.
The State Department charged on Thursday that Iran’s test of the satellite launch vehicle was a violation of UN Security Council resolutions as well as the spirit of the multinational Iran nuclear deal, under which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear programs in exchange for a lifting of some economic sanctions.
Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said the Trump administration would continue to impose consequences on Iran until it complied fully with UN resolutions.
“The issue with Iran always comes back to mistrust. Iran’s widespread support for terrorists tells us we can’t trust them. Iran’s breaking its obligation on missile testing tells us we can’t trust them. Yesterday’s launch proves that yet again,” she said in a statement.
The Trump administration certified Iran as being in compliance with the nuclear deal last week, even though Trump has called the agreement negotiated by his Democratic predecessor “the worst deal ever.”
Trump issued a veiled threat against Iran earlier this week, warning Tehran to adhere to the terms of the nuclear accord or face “big, big problems.” He said in a speech in Ohio that the deal had “emboldened” Iran and added “that won’t take place much longer.”
Iran, US trade blame
Tehran and Washington Saturday accused each other’s naval forces of provocative maneuvers in the Gulf that culminated in a US helicopter firing warning flares at Iranian vessels, the latest close encounter between the countries in recent months.
The US Navy said it had reacted to unresponsive vessels belonging to the Revolutionary Guards closing in on American ships at high speed, a charge denied by Iran, which described the American move as unprovoked.
“At 4 pm (1130 GMT) on Friday, the supercarrier USS Nimitz and its accompanying warship, while being monitored by the Guards’ frigates, flew a helicopter near the Resalat oil and gas platform and approached the force’s ships,” the Guards said.
“The Americans in a provocative and unprofessional move, sent a warning message to the frigates and fired flares.”
The Guards “ignored the unconventional move by the US ships and continued their mission, after which the supercarrier and its warship left the area,” the statement added.
The US Navy said in a statement its ships were on a routine patrol when an American helicopter “observed several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval vessels approaching US naval forces at a high rate of speed.”
It added: “US naval forces attempted to establish communications, with no response from the Iranian vessels. Shortly thereafter, at a safe distance, the US helicopter deployed flares, after which the Iranian vessels halted their approach.”
The latest incident came days after a US Navy patrol ship fired warning shots at a Guards boat in similar circumstances, with each side blaming the other.
In January, the destroyer USS Mahan fired warning shots at four Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels that approached at high speed in the Strait of Hormuz, which connects it to the Indian Ocean.
The Revolutionary Guards are a paramilitary force that answers directly to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The force’s boats periodically approach US warships in international waters and the Strait of Hormuz, ignoring US radio messages and giving little indication of their intentions.
In January 2016, the Iranians briefly captured the crew of two small US patrol boats that strayed into Iranian waters.
The 10 US sailors were released 24 hours later.
The latest incident comes after the US Congress approved new sanctions against Iran.