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WHITE HOUSE — Iran is “nothing but trouble,” U.S. President Donald Trump said after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized two British-owned oil tankers Friday in the Strait of Hormuz.
“We heard it was one, we heard it was two. We’ll be working with the U.K.,” Trump said on the White House South Lawn in response to a question from VOA. “We have no written agreement [with the British]. But I think we have an agreement that is long-standing.”
Iran’s maritime authorities had requested the capture of the British-flagged Stena Impero for “not following international maritime regulations,” according to the guard corps, which is a branch of the Iranian armed forces.
The owners of the Stena Impero, which was heading to Saudi Arabia, said they had been unable to contact their vessel, which had 23 personnel on board. It was “heading north towards Iran” after being approached by “unidentified small crafts and a helicopter” in the strait, the owners said.
Officials in London said Iranian forces also seized the British-owned Liberian-flagged oil tanker Mesdar on Friday.
British government officials called the detention of the two tankers unacceptable and a violation of the free passage of vessels in international waters.
The actions by Tehran appeared to be retaliation for the detention of a supertanker in the British Mediterranean territory of Gibraltar.
Authorities there on Friday extended for 30 days the holding of a Panamanian-flagged supertanker, the Grace 1. It was seized this month by British Royal Marines on suspicion of violating sanctions against Syria by attempting to transport Iranian crude oil to Syria.
Earlier in the day, Trump expressed confidence an Iranian drone had been downed Thursday in the strait as it approached a U.S. warship.
“No doubt about it. No. We shot it down,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.
“There’s no question that this was an Iranian drone,” Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, chimed in. “The USS Boxer took it out as the president announced yesterday because it posed a threat to the ship and its crew. It was entirely the right thing to do.”
Asked before news of the seizure of the oil tankers became public if he was worried about a broader clash with Iran in the strait, Trump replied he was not.
“We hope for their sake they don’t do anything foolish,” he said. “If they do, they will pay a price like nobody’s ever paid a price.”
VOA later asked Trump if seizing the tankers was foolish, but he declined to answer specifically.
Bid to break ‘status quo’
Speaking Friday at a security forum in Aspen, Colorado, U.S. Defense Intelligence Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said Iran was at what he described as an inflection point because of economic strife caused by U.S. sanctions.
“What you see is an attempt to break that status quo,” Ashley said.
“We saw this coming a couple of weeks out,” he told the audience, adding that while Tehran does not want war, “there’s always the possibility of miscalculation.”
Earlier Friday, a senior administration official told reporters the Defense Department was expected to release video evidence of the drone shootdown.
Iran denied the U.S. military had shot down one of its drones.
“We have not lost any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else,” Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi posted on Twitter, adding he was “worried” that the U.S. amphibious assault ship had shot down an American military drone “by mistake.”
“The Iranians don’t have a great history with the truth,” responded a senior U.S. official to the assertion from Tehran. “They have a 40-year history of provoking us.”
Trump told reporters at a White House event Thursday that the drone came within 900 meters of the Boxer and ignored “multiple calls to stand down.”
“The drone was immediately destroyed,” he said. “This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters. The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, our facilities and interests.”
U.S. officials dismissed a proposal by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to allow permanent scrutiny of his country’s nuclear sites in exchange for permanent sanctions relief.
“The president has repeatedly said he is willing to have a conversation with Iranian leaders. If Iran wants to make a serious gesture, it should start by ending uranium enrichment immediately and having an actual decision-maker attempt to negotiate a deal that includes a permanent end to Iran’s malign nuclear ambitions, including its development of nuclear-capable missiles,” a senior U.S. official told VOA.
Zarif’s authority challenged
On Friday, a senior administration official elaborated upon the point that the Trump administration wanted “to see those offers coming from someone who has decision-making power, which he does not.”
“We’ve seen absolutely no evidence [Zarif] has decision-making power,” the senior administration official said, adding that any offers from Tehran needed to come from either Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini or Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
In a briefing for reporters, a senior official emphasized that the president desired to change Iran’s behavior through diplomacy and economic pressure, and “he has no interest in an additional war in the Middle East,” but “if they continue to take provocative acts that threaten our assets, our ships, commerce in the region, we’ll respond.”
A U.S. senator, Republican Rand Paul, has been given Trump’s consent to speak with the Iranians, Trump confirmed Friday.
“Rand asked me if he could get involved. The answer was yes,” said Trump in response to a reporter’s question.
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.