Donald Trump backed away from military action against Iran on Saturday, instead vowing new sanctions to intensify the country’s economic “hell”.
The US president said he was being praised for cancelling an airstrike on Iranian targets at the last moment, noting how he was now seen as a “dove”.
Mr Trump is spending the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland countryside, as he ponders the next steps in an escalating stand-off with Iran.
This week Iran is due to exceed the limit for uranium stockpiles set by the 2015 nuclear deal, pushing the agreement further into doubt after America withdrew last year.
Andrew Murrison, the UK foreign minister covering the Middle East, will on Sunday attempt to defuse tensions during a trip to Tehran, the Iranian capital.
The spokesman for Iran’s armed forces, Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi, issued a stark warning to America over the consequences of military intervention.
"If the enemy - especially America and its allies in the region - make the military mistake of shooting the powder keg on which America's interests lie, the region will be set on fire,” he warned.
Meanwhile it emerged yesterday/SUN that Iran has hanged a CIA informer said to be a former member of the military unit that downed the US drone. Iran’s Judiciary Unit for Armed Forces confirmed that Seyyed Jamal Haji-Zavareh was executed last week on charges of "spying for an enemy state and the CIA”.
Republican hawks in Congress have been publicly warning Mr Trump that he will project “weakness” if he fails to punish Iran for downing an unmanned US surveillance drone this week.
However on Saturday the president defended his decision to stand down US bombers on Thursday just moments before they were due to strike three Iranian targets in retaliation.
He said Iran’s drone attack was “probably intentional”, walking back a previous suggestion that it could have been accidental, but stressed again that nobody had been killed.
“We’re getting a lot of praise for what I did,” Mr Trump said of his decision to call off strikes, adding: “Everyone was saying I’m a warmonger. Now they’re saying I’m a dove.”
....On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
Instead Mr Trump said that he would ramp up his administration’s strategy of economic sanctions in an attempt to force Iran to the negotiating table.
“Look, Iran right now is an economic mess. They’re going through hell. The sanctions have hit them hard. More sanctions are going to be put on. A lot more,” he said.
It is unclear when the new sanctions will come or in what form, but the point when Iran confirms it has breached uranium stockpile limits - expected this week - could be one trigger.
That moment will be a major test for the nuclear deal. Iran has largely abided by the requirements laid out in the 2015 pact despite America’s withdrawal.
European allies who co-signed the agreement are continuing to hold out hope it can be kept alive but have warned Iran not to break its commitments on uranium stockpiling.
Mr Murrison, who has only held the ministerial post for a matter of weeks, said he would raise concerns about "Iran's regional conduct and its threat to cease complying with the nuclear deal" during his visit.
New details have emerged about Mr Trump’s cancellation of airstrikes on Thursday. The Washington Post reported that the planned bombing was two hours away rather than 10 minutes as the president tweeted.
John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, was said to have been a key internal supporter of the US attack.
Mr Trump on Saturday acknowledged Mr Bolton was a foreign policy “hawk” but said he still retained his confidence.