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Trump says US to hit Iran with ‘major’ new sanctions on Monday

US president says military action remains an option after calling off retaliatory air strikes; Washington Post reports US launched cyber attacks against Tehran after it shot down drone
Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh inspects debris from downed US drone reportedly recovered within Iran's territorial waters on Friday (AFP)

President Donald Trump said on Saturday that the United States will impose "major" new sanctions on Iran in two days - a move sure to exacerbate tensions with the Islamic republic that were inflamed by the downing of a US drone. The US also launched cyber attacks against Iranian missile control systems and a spy network, the Washington Post reported on Saturday.

On Thursday, an Iranian missile destroyed a US Global Hawk surveillance drone, an incident that Washington said happened in international airspace. Tehran repeated on Saturday that the drone was shot down over its territory and said it would respond firmly to any US threat, Reuters reported.

Trump had tamped down the threat of military action on Friday when he called off retaliatory strikes at the last minute because the response was not "proportionate" to the drone's destruction over the Strait of Hormuz, AFP said. Still, he said, military action remains an option.

Now he has set a timetable for fresh punitive economic measures to heap more pressure on an Iranian economy already reeling from the sanctions in place since Trump withdrew from an international nuclear deal with Tehran.

"We are putting major additional Sanctions on Iran on Monday," Trump tweeted. "I look forward to the day that Sanctions come off Iran, and they become a productive and prosperous nation again - The sooner the better!"

Earlier, before heading to Camp David for meetings with his advisers on the situation, Trump said he would be Iran's "best friend" and that the Islamic republic could be a "wealthy" country if it renounced nuclear weapons.

"We're not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon," Trump told reporters outside the White House. "When they agree to that, they're going to have a wealthy country. They're going to be so happy, and I'm going to be their best friend. I hope that happens."

"Let's make Iran great again," he added, tweaking for the occasion his main domestic political mantra.

Still, after the drone's downing, Trump secretly authorised US Cyber Command to carry out a retaliatory cyber attack on Thursday night against Iran, which crippled computers used to control rocket and missile launches, according to the Post, citing people familiar with the matter.

The Post said the cyber attacks had been planned for weeks and were first proposed as a response to oil tanker attacks that the US blames on Tehran.

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Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told the semi-official Tasnim news agency on Saturday: "Regardless of any decision they make, we will not allow any of Iran's borders to be violated. Iran will firmly confront any aggression or threat by America."

A senior commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards struck a similarly defiant note, in comments quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

"If the violation is repeated then our response will be repeated," said Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Guards' aerospace division. "It's possible that this infringement of the Americans was carried out by a general or some operators."

Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, published a map on Twitter with detailed coordinates that he said showed the drone was flying over the Islamic Republic's territorial waters.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Commander Rebecca Rebarich, said on Saturday: "We stand by where we said the aircraft was operating in international airspace."

Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned a United Arab Emirates envoy on Saturday because the UAE allowed the drone to be launched from a US military base on its territory, the Fars news agency reported.

Last year, Trump pulled the US from the deal designed to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief, and reinstated measures designed to choke off Iranian oil sales and cripple its economy.

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As part of the spike in tensions, the US has beefed up its military presence in the Middle East and blamed Iran for attacks on oil tankers on the Gulf of Oman. Iran denies any responsibility.

"Everyone was saying I'm a war-monger, and now they say I'm a dove," Trump said on Saturday as he was peppered with questions about the Iran drama. Trump insisted it is up to the Iranian leadership how the current crisis plays out.

"If the leadership of Iran behaves badly, then it's going to be a very, very bad day for them," he said.

"But hopefully they're smart and hopefully they really care for their people and not themselves, and hopefully we can get Iran back on to an economic track that's fantastic, where they're a really wealthy nation, which would be a wonderful thing," he added.

World powers have called for calm and sent in envoys for talks to try to lower the temperature of a dispute that has pushed up the price of oil.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Saturday for a political resolution of the crisis, adding: "That is what we are working on."