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Trump threatens Iran with 'obliteration' after Rouhani calls White House 'mentally retarded'

US president's heated exchange with his Iranian counterpart come as tensions between the two countries surge
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have escalated since Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal last year (AFP)

US President Donald Trump has threatened Iran with "obliteration" if the country were to strike American targets, a day after his administration imposed sanctions on Iran's supreme leader amid mounting tensions between Washington and Tehran

In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Trump declared that "any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force".

"In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration," he said. 

His comments come after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the White House "mentally retarded" and its actions "outrageous" and "idiotic", vowing that Tehran would not back down from US sanctions. 

"Today, the Americans have become desperate and confused," Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on Iranian television. "This has made them take unusual measures and talk nonsense."

In his tweets, Trump called Rouhani's comments "very ignorant and insulting", adding that the statement shows Iran does not "understand reality".

On Monday, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a move Washington billed as retaliation for Tehran's shooting down of an unmanned US drone last week.

US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters that day that Washington is also preparing sanctions against Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, a key architect of the Obama administration's 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Trump imposes sanctions on Iran's supreme leader
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The new measures also come days after Trump authorised, then called off, military strikes against Iranian targets in response to the attack on the US drone.

Tehran has blamed Washington for that incident, however, saying that the unmanned drone had violated its airspace while operating illegally in stealth mode.

But US officials have insisted that the drone was wrongly shot down over international waters.

"I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us - a lot of restraint - and that doesn't mean we're going to show it in the future," Trump said on Twitter at the time.

Meanwhile, White House national security adviser John Bolton, speaking at a summit meeting in Jerusalem with his Russian and Israeli counterparts on Tuesday, urged Iran to step back from its "malign behaviour".

Bolton, a hawkish Trump administration official who has advocated regime change in Iran, also called on Iran to enter into "real negotiations".

He said the Trump administration was ready to talk with Tehran about its nuclear weapons programme, ballistic missile development, and backing of international terror groups.

But the Iranian president said that offer was disingenuous on Tuesday.

"At the same time as you call for negotiations you seek to sanction the foreign minister? It's obvious that you're lying," Rouhani said in his televised speech, as reported by AFP news agency.

'Maximum pressure' campaign

Trump administration officials have made various calls for negotiations during the past several months, but Iranian officials have brushed off the calls as insincere.

Iran has refused the prospect of returning to negotiations under the duress of the US's "maximum pressure" campaign on the country. 

Last year, Trump pulled Washington out of a 2015 multinational agreement that saw Tehran drastically scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

The Trump administration then began reimposing a series of crippling sanctions against Tehran, all while taking steps to pressure the international community to follow suit. 

Tensions between Washington and Tehran further escalated in early May after US officials warned that Iran was planning attacks against US troops and interests in the Middle East.

A timeline of US-Iran tensions

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Tensions have skyrocketed between the Washington and Tehran since US President Donald Trump announced last May that he was pulling out of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.

Here's a timeline of key events that have led to, and marked, the recent escalation:

8 May 2018: US President Donald Trump announces plans to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Under that agreement, the Iranian government agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

Trump also says Washington will reimpose "the highest levels of economic sanctions" on Tehran.

5 November 2018: The US reimposes sanctions on Iran's oil, banking and transport sectors. At the same time, Trump says he wants to gradually impose sanctions on the Iranian oil industry, citing concerns about upsetting energy markets and causing global price spikes.

8 April: The Trump administration blacklists Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The move marks the first time Washington has formally labelled another country's military a terrorist group.

30 April: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signs a bill into law that declares all US troops in the Middle East as terrorists, and defines the US as a state-sponsor of terrorism.

2 May: The US stops issuing waivers to countries that import oil from Iran. Those waivers had allowed certain states, including Turkey, China, Japan, India and South Korea, to keep buying Iranian oil, despite American sanctions - and provided a lifeline for Tehran.

6 May: US National Security Adviser John Bolton announces that the Trump administration is deploying an aircraft carrier, as well as ships and bombers, to the Gulf. The move was meant to send a "clear and unmistakable message" to the Iranian government, Bolton said, amid intelligence reports that Tehran was planning attacks against American troops in the region.

7 May: Iran says it plans to withdraw from parts of the 2015 nuclear agreement with major world powers. The move comes one year after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal.

8 May: The Trump administration announces a new round of economic sanctions that will target Iran's metals trade - iron, steel, aluminium and copper, specifically.

9 May: As the drums of war began to beat louder in certain circles in Washington, Trump tells reporters that he "would like to see them [Iran] call me" - a sign the US president is perhaps seeking to de-escalate the situation.

12 May: The United Arab Emirates says four oil tankers were damaged in "acts of sabotage" off the coast of Fujairah, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. The UAE did not assign blame for the incident, but said it would launch an investigation into what happened.

13 May: Mike Pompeo makes a surprise visit to Brussels, where he seeks to get European leaders on board with Washington's "maximum pressure" strategy against Tehran. The US secretary of state gets a lukewarm reception, however, with the European Union's foreign policy chief instead urging the US to show "maximum restraint".

14 May: Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says the country will not go to war with the US. "Neither we nor they - who know war will not be in their interest - are after war," Khamenei says.

15 May: Anwar Gargash, the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs, says the country is committed to "de-escalation" with Iran, while refusing to assign blame for the 12 May "sabotage" of the oil tankers.

That same day, the US orders non-emergency government employees to leave Iraq, citing fears of an imminent attack by Iranian-backed proxies in that country.

19 May: A Katyusha rocket is fired into Baghdad's Green Zone, an area that houses government offices and foreign diplomatic missions, including the US embassy in Iraq.

21 May: A previously unknown Iraqi group claims responsibility for the rocket fired into the Green Zone. The Operations of Martyr Ali Mansour says the attack is retaliation for Trump's decision to pardon a soldier who killed an Iraqi detainee in 2009.

In Washington that same day, US lawmakers are briefed by members of the Trump administration about its claims that Iran poses a threat to the country. Several members of Congress tell reporters they left the meetings unconvinced.

24 May: Washington announces plans to deploy 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East to counter Iranian threats, a decision Iran blasted as "extremely dangerous".

28 May: US National Security Adviser John Bolton says the attack on four vessels off the Emirati coast was caused by "naval mines almost certainly from Iran".

30 May-1 June: Saudi Arabia hosts a summit in Mecca to discuss recent tensions with Iran. On the eve of the talks, Riyadh blasts what it called Iranian "interference" in the region and demanded "firmness" over attacks in the Gulf.

7 June: The US imposes sanctions on Iran's largest petrochemicals holding group, accusing Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company of providing financial support to an engineering firm with ties to the IRGC.

13 June: Two oil tankers suffer damage after an unspecified attack in the Gulf of Oman. Hours after the incident, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo points the finger at Iran, without providing evidence to back up his claim.

Iran immediately denies it was involved in the attacks, accusing Washington of seeking to derail diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation.

14 June: The head of the United Nations calls for an independent investigation into the incidents in the Gulf of Oman.

Earlier in the day, US Central Command releases a video that it says shows Iranian IRGC members removing an unexploded mine from one of the damaged ships. That comes after Trump himself says the incident has Iran "written all over it".

Meanwhile, the owner of the Japanese vessel says crew members reported seeing objects flying towards them - which would appear to refute the US's version of events. "The crew told us something came flying at the ship and they found a hole," the owner says. "Then some crew witnessed the second shot."

17 June: The US will send roughly 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East, Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan announces.

20 June: Iran says it shot down a US military drone entering Iranian airspace near the Straits of Hormuz. A US official confirms that a drone was shot down but says it was in international airspace.

21 June: US President Donald Trump says he ordered and then aborted a military strike on Iran roughly 10 minutes before the operation took place.

Fighter jets were in the air to strike multiple Iranian military installations in response to Iran's shooting down of an unmanned US drone a day earlier, according to US media reports.

Trump says he called off the strike after US generals reportedly told him the attack would kill 150 Iranians. The US operation was "not proportionate", the US president says.

24 June: The US imposes a new round of sanctions on Iran, this time targeting the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

25 June: Trump threatens Iran with "obliteration" if the country were to strike American targets. His comments come after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the White House "mentally retarded" and vowed that Tehran would not back down from US sanctions. 

Also on Tuesday, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweets an article written by John Bolton in 2017, which outlines how the US should back out of the nuclear deal and detailing why the Iranians would not want to negotiate once the US withdraws.

28 June: The US Senate votes down an amendment that sought to bar Trump from being able to declare war on Iran without authorisation from Congress.

4 July: A supertanker suspected of carrying Iranian crude oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions is detained in Gibraltar. Senior Iranian officials deny claims the tanker was headed to Syria. 

5 July: A senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander suggests that Iran should seize a British oil tanker if the Iranian vessel detained off Gibraltar is not released immediately.

9 July: General Joseph Dunford, a top US general, announces plans to set up a coalition of allied countries willing to patrol key waterways in the Gulf region. 

Dunford says the US military would provide command ships and surveillance technology, while its allies would escort ships and patrol the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb.

11 July: British officials say three Iranian boats attempted to "impede the passage" of a British oil tanker in Gulf waters, forcing a UK warship to intervene. Iran denies the accusation

Meanwhile, Gibraltar police announce the arrest of the captain and chief officer of the Iranian supertanker on suspicion that the ship had breached EU sanctions on Syria on 4 July. 

Police also seize documents and electronic devices from the ship, which remains in custody. 

On 8 May, Iran announced plans to suspend two of its commitments under the nuclear deal and gave Europe, China and Russia - who are still signatories to the agreement - a two-month ultimatum to help it circumvent US sanctions.

It also threatened to abandon more of its commitments if a soluti0n is not reached by 7 July.

Since then, Washington has blamed Tehran for a string of attacks in the region, including the sabotage of four ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Iran has denied responsibility for the incidents.

Amid the ongoing tensions, the US has also announced two separate deployments of American troops to the Middle East, totalling around 2,500 soldiers, to counter Iran.

Congressional opposition

Meanwhile, a US congressman has introduced an amendment in the House of Representatives that prohibits military funding from being used against Iran unless the Trump administration seeks congressional authorisation.

Ro Khanna, a Democrat, announced on Tuesday the amendment to be joined in next month's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which greenlights the president's proposed military budget.

It states that the US cannot invoke Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) acts of 2001 and 2002 to engage Iran militarily.

Congress passed the AUMF days after the 11 September 2001 attacks, granting the US president the authority to use military force against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan without congressional approval.

A year later, Congress adopted an updated AUMF, which allowed the US to go to war in Iraq.

"It’s more important than ever that Congress reassert its constitutional authority on war and peace and make clear that the 2001 and 2002 AUMFS cannot be used as the legal basis for the use of force against Iran," said Congresswomen Barbara Lee, a Democrat, who expressed support for the legislation.