White House Warns Iran But Plans No Immediate New Action

The White House issued a sharp warning to Iran on Wednesday over what it called recent provocations, but officials said the United States is not taking any immediate military or other action to follow up.

National Security Adviser Mike Flynn appeared at the daily press briefing to deliver a prepared statement that listed Washington's latest grievances with Tehran, including its test of a ballistic missile and attacks by proxy forces in Yemen on American and Middle Eastern ships.

Flynn said President Obama had gone too easy on Iran, but that all would stop with President Trump.

"As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice," Flynn said.

A senior administration official told reporters later in the day that the White House is prepared to respond to Iran with "appropriation actions," but did not detail them or explain what being "on notice" means in practical terms.

"The statement speaks for itself," the official said of Flynn's comments.

The White House's warning followed a day after U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters in New York that she had raised the issue of the missile launch with the U.N. Security Council. She rejected explanations by Iranian officials that it had "no intention of attacking any country," as she described them.

"The U.S. is not naïve," Haley said. "We're not going to stand by. You will see us call them out as we said we would and you're also going to see us act accordingly."

Although the Trump administration leaders had no actions or changes in policy to announce, they at least made clear they intend to make a break from the tone of their predecessors.

Obama, then-Secretary of State John Kerry and other leaders were eager to conclude the deal that they said would take Iran off the path to building a nuclear weapon. Last year, when Iranians humiliated the U.S. Navy by capturing a group of American sailors, then-deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes sought to play up the closeness between the governments that he said had enabled the sailors' release.

Flynn, however, is a hawk. He is convinced the nuclear deal has not changed Tehran's intention to build a weapon and threaten Israel or its other neighbors. He told NPR last year that Iran is a "criminal enterprise" and a dictatorship.

In 2015, Flynn told members of Congress that any hope for rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran was "wishful thinking" and called for a "NATO-like structure" among Arab nations to check the threat.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab allies in the Mideast were nervous about the effect of relieving Western sanctions on Iran in exchange for its agreement not to build a nuclear weapon. Obama tried to ease their worries by offering more American-built military hardware, including fighter aircraft and missile defense systems.

One option for Flynn is to urge Trump to do even more along those lines as Haley pursues an international diplomatic response at the U.N. The White House also could order a big military show of force, possibly with American warships in Middle Eastern waters or warplanes stationed around the region.

But the new rhetoric also creates risk for the White House. Flynn made a bold statement for the TV cameras about putting Iran "on notice" but then had no subsequent action to announce. Critics excoriated Obama for saying in 2012 that if Syria used chemical weapons in its civil war, it would constitute the crossing of a "red line" – then ultimately decided not to take major military action.

The danger for Trump and Flynn is that putting Iran "on notice" could provoke a crisis if Iranian hardliners respond somehow to test them — forcing the White House to choose between getting into a cycle of escalation or to trying to back down.

White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (right) put "Iran on notice" on Wednesday for a recent missile test and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Trump White House Puts Iran ‘On Notice’ After Missile Launch

WASHINGTON—The White House sharply condemned a recent Iranian ballistic missile test launch and warned of consequences including the possibility of new U.S. sanctions, in a more confrontational approach to Tehran that lays the groundwork for a potential early clash between the two countries.

Calling Iran a “destabilizing influence” in the Middle East, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn declared Wednesday: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”

The pronouncement marked a pivot away from the Obama administration’s policy of diplomatic engagement, which led to a 2015 multinational nuclear deal that has been denounced repeatedly by President Donald Trump and his aides.

Iran has warned that new U.S. sanctions could constitute a violation of the nuclear deal, setting up a scenario in which the agreement could unravel—something that hardliners in both countries would welcome.

Administration officials, while providing few specifics, said Mr. Trump has begun a process of reviewing current U.S. policy and is “considering a whole range of options,” including tougher sanctions. Asked if military force also was one of the options, the officials didn’t rule it out.

One set of options has been outlined by Congress, which is preparing a measure targeting Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Congressional staff working on the legislation said it could be ready as early as March.

A number of Trump administration officials have acknowledged new sanctions could prompt Tehran to claim the U.S. violated the nuclear agreement. They have said the White House is prepared for such a confrontation over the sanctions in the months ahead.

The warning from the new U.S. administration came just hours after Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan confirmed the missile launch, though he provided no additional details on when and where it happened, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Gen. Dehghan said the launch didn’t violate the 2015 deal between Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

Senior U.S. officials agreed Wednesday the launch didn’t violate the nuclear deal, a position that was also taken by the Obama administration.

“The important thing is here is that we’re communicating that Iranian behavior needs to be rethought by Tehran,” one senior official said. “That is something Tehran needs to think through, because we are considering these things in a different perspective.”

Mr. Flynn said the latest missile launch was a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal and “called upon” Iran to avoid any activity related to missiles designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Tuesday said none of Iran’s missiles had been designed to carry a nuclear warhead and that therefore the program didn’t conflict with the U.N. resolution.

The program only has “conventional warheads that are within the legitimate defense domain,” Mr. Zarif said.

The Security Council held a closed meeting on Tuesday but took no action, referring the issue for further investigation. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, in her debut at the Council, told reporters the U.S. would be warning “people across the world” about the risks of Iran’s actions in the region.

The U.K.’s ambassador to the U.N., Matthew Rycroft, said Wednesday that the missile test is “inconsistent” with the U.N. resolution.

Mr. Trump was highly critical of President Barack Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran, particularly the nuclear deal, and Iran was among seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens he barred from the U.S. in an executive order Friday the White House said is aimed at keeping terrorists from entering the country.

Mr. Flynn said agreements Iran has made with the Obama administration and the U.N. are “weak and ineffective.”

“Instead of being thankful to the United States for these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened,” he said.

Mr. Flynn said Iran’s missile tests and other actions, including its backing of Houthi forces in Yemen and confrontations with U.S. military vessels, were not met with a sufficiently stern U.S. response during the Obama administration.

The U.S. has blamed Iran in the past for helping fuel an uprising among Houthi rebels in Yemen. In October, missiles fired from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen unsuccessfully targeted U.S. ships off the country’s coast in the Red Sea, and Gen. Joe Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, said he suspected Iran played a role in the attempted attack.

The Houthis denied attacking the ships. Iran has denied playing any part in the attempted attack. The U.S. is providing support to a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni nations fighting against the uprising. It is also targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, in Yemen directly.

The Obama administration imposed new sanctions on 11 Iran-linked entities over Tehran’s missile development in January 2016. In December, Mr. Obama allowed for a renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act, which passed Congress with broad bipartisan support, though he did so with a procedural protest by deciding to let the legislation, which imposes U.S. restrictions on Iran’s missile program, to become law without his signature.

The White House said at the time that a 10-year extension of the law “does not affect in any way our ability to fulfill our commitments” in the nuclear agreement.

Mr. Trump hasn’t said how he plans to approach the nuclear deal, which as a candidate he threatened to back out of or renegotiate. Several of his national security nominees have testified that the U.S. should aggressively enforce the agreement, but not seek to end it.

The senior U.S. officials briefing reporters on Mr. Flynn’s comments said the president at the moment doesn’t want “to take any action that would foreclose options or unnecessarily contribute to a negative response.” They also sought to separate the nuclear deal from U.S. concerns about Iran’s other actions such as ballistic missile tests.

Tehran has maintained its nuclear program is for peaceful power generation and research, and that its missiles are conventional and for defensive purposes.

Also on Wednesday, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Iran is rapidly taking over more and more of Iraq even after the U.S. has squandered three trillion dollars there. Obvious long ago!” The Iranian government’s influence in Iraq has grown since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, and U.S. officials have worried that Iran, while fighting Islamic State, will use that influence to fuel sectarian tensions. But there is no evidence Tehran is taking over any part of Iraq in the sense of annexing pieces of the country.

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