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Zarif dismisses US calls for diplomacy, says Bolton 'plotting for war'

John Bolton, now senior adviser to Trump, wrote in 2017 that Iran would spurn talks after US leaves nuclear deal
John Bolton in an Israeli military helicopter above the occupied West Bank, 23 June (Reuters)

Recent calls from US officials for greater diplomacy with Tehran are not genuine, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Tuesday, as tensions between the two countries continue to mount.

In a tweet, Zarif pointed to a 2017 column by John Bolton in which the US national security adviser encourages the US to keep the possibility of talks with Iran open - but only rhetorically.

The end goal of such overtures from Washington, Bolton openly argued in the piece, is to "demonstrate" that Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons.

"Iran never left the negotiation table. #B_Team dragged the US out, while plotting for war," Zarif tweeted.

The foreign minister has frequently criticised Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom he calls the "B Team", for stoking anti-Iran hostility.

His comment comes amid calls for talks between Washington and Tehran to stem ongoing tensions.

Even Bolton - a hawkish member of the Trump administration who has advocated regime change in Iran - recently said the US wants to enter into "real negotiations" with Iran.

But his 2017 column laid out a strategy for the US to leave the most critical diplomatic agreement involving the US and Iran in years: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

That multinational agreement saw Iran drastically scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against its economy. 

In the piece - published in the National Review before he joined the Trump administration -  Bolton called for international and domestic efforts to portray Tehran as a "grave threat" to Washington and its allies.

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"Iran is not likely to seek further negotiations once the JCPOA is abrogated," he wrote.

"But the Administration may wish to consider rhetorically leaving that possibility open in order to demonstrate Iran’s actual underlying intention to develop deliverable nuclear weapons, an intention that has never flagged."

Indeed, on Tuesday, Bolton said the US is holding an "open door" for negotiations with Tehran.

In the 2017 plan, Bolton stops short of advocating military action against Iran but urged the US to prepare for that possibility.

"With Israel and selected others, we will discuss military options," he wrote. 

In May 2018, within weeks of Bolton's appointment as the head of the influential National Security Council, Trump left the JCPOA. 

Since then, the US has gradually reimposed biting sanctions on various sectors of the Iranian economy. Trump also has designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group.

The two countries were on the brink of war last week when Trump ordered - then cancelled - military strikes against Iran. The New York Times reported on Thursday evening that Bolton was one of the key officials who supported the planned attack. 

The strikes would have come after Iranian forces downed a US drone that they said had violated their country's air space.

However, US officials have insisted that the unmanned plane was over international waters when it was shot down.

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. 

12 July: US lawmakers approve a measure that would force President Donald Trump to seek congressional approval before ordering military strikes against Iran.

16 July: Iran says it has ruled out entering into negotiations over its ballistic missile programme, directly contradicting statements made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier that same day.

18 July: US President Donald Trump says American warship USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping channel in the Gulf.

Top Iranian officials deny the report, however, with Iran's deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi saying Iran did not lose "any drone in the Strait of Hormuz nor anywhere else".

The incident followed a weeks-long standoff in which US officials have blamed Tehran for a string of attacks in the region, including the targeting of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on 13 June. 

Iran denied responsibility for the attacks but refused to open direct talks with the US administration until Washington returns to the JCPOA, as Bolton predicted in 2017.

On Tuesday, acting US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper appeared to take a page out of Bolton's playbook.

At a NATO meeting in Brussels, he called for an international coalition against Iran but framed it as an act of diplomatic engagement.

"We need to internationalise this issue and have our allies and partners work with us to get Iran to come back to the negotiating table," Esper said, as reported by Reuters.