Stern words from Iran: US cannot 'expect to stay safe'

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's foreign minister warned the U.S. on Monday that it "cannot expect to stay safe" after launching what he described as an economic war against Tehran, taking a hard-line stance amid a visit by Germany's top diplomat seeking to defuse tensions.

A stern-faced Mohammad Javad Zarif offered a series of threats over the ongoing tensions gripping the Persian Gulf. The crisis takes root in President Donald Trump's decision over a year ago to withdraw America from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Trump also reinstated tough sanctions on Iran, targeting its oil sector.

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"Mr. Trump himself has announced that the U.S. has launched an economic war against Iran," Zarif said. "The only solution for reducing tensions in this region is stopping that economic war."

Zarif also warned: "Whoever starts a war with us will not be the one who finishes it."

Zarif's ramped up rhetoric marked a sharp departure for the U.S.-educated diplomat and signals that Iran is taking a harder line toward the West. His public threats, which came during a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, were striking because Zarif was the one who helped secure the nuclear deal, alongside the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani. However, he does not make the decision on whether to go to war. That is left to the supreme leader.

For his part, Maas insisted his country and other European nations want to find a way to salvage the deal, which saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. But he acknowledged there were limits.

"We won't be able to do miracles, but we are trying as best as we can to do prevent its failure," Maas said.

However, Europe has yet to offer Iran a way to get around the newly imposed U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, a July 7 deadline — imposed by Iran — looms for Europe to find a way to save the unraveling deal. Otherwise, Iran has warned it will resume enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus dismissed the foreign minister's comments as "typical behaviour" from the Iranian government as it confronts a Trump administration campaign of increasing economic and diplomatic pressure.

"We aren't impressed," she told reporters. "Iran faces a simple choice: it can either behave like a normal nation or watch its economy crumble."

Zarif's comments came after Maas spoke about Israel, an archenemy of Iran's government.

"Israel's right to exist is part of Germany's founding principle and is completely non-negotiable," Maas said. "It is a result of our history and it's irrevocable and doesn't just change because I am currently in Tehran."

Zarif then grew visibly angry, offering a list of Mideast problems ranging from al-Qaida to the bombing of Yemeni civilians he blamed on the U.S. and its allies, namely Saudi Arabia.

"If one seeks to talk about instability in this region, those are the other parties who should be held responsible," Zarif said.

Zarif's sharp tone likely comes from Iran's growing frustration with Europe, as well as the ever-tightening American sanctions targeting the country. Iran's national currency, the rial, is trading at nearly 130,000 to $1. It had been 32,000 to the dollar at the time of the 2015 deal. That has wiped away people's earnings, as well as driven up prices on nearly every good in the country.

European nations had pledged to create a mechanism called INSTEX, which would allow Iran to continue to trade for humanitarian goods despite American sanctions. However, that program has yet to really take off, something Iran's foreign ministry spokesman noted before Zarif and Maas spoke to reporters.

"We haven't put much hope in INSTEX," spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, according to Iranian state television. "If INSTEX was going to help us, it would have done so already."

Maas later met Rouhani as well.

"We expect Europe to stand up to the United States' economic terrorism against the Iranian nation, living up to its commitments under the deal," Rouhani told him, according to a statement.

Trump, in withdrawing from the deal, pointed that the accord had not limited Iran's ballistic missile program, or addressed what American officials describe as Tehran's malign influence across the wider Mideast.

Back when the deal was struck in 2015, it was described it as a building block toward further negotiations with Iran, whose Islamic government has had a tense relationship with America since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and subsequent hostage crisis.

Some members of Trump's administration, particularly National Security Adviser John Bolton, previously supported the overthrow of Iran's government. Trump, however, has stressed that he wants to talk with Iran's clerical rulers.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will arrive in Tehran on Wednesday as an interlocutor for Trump.

Japan had once purchased Iranian oil, but it has now stopped over American sanctions. However, Mideast oil remains crucial to Japan and recent threats from Iran to close off the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth through which a third of all oil traded by sea passes, has raised concerns.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency reported that Ali Asghar Zarean, deputy head of Iran's nuclear department, said Tehran had increased the number of its centrifuges to 1,044 at the Fordo underground facility. That's the maximum allowed under the deal.

Meanwhile, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog said Monday that Iran had already increased its uranium enrichment activities. Iran previously announced it would quadruple its production of low-enrichment uranium.

"I am worried about increasing tensions over the Iranian nuclear issue," Yukiya Amano of the International Atomic Energy Agency said. "As I have constantly emphasized, the nuclear-related commitments entered into by Iran under the (deal) represent a significant gain for nuclear verification — I therefore hope that ways can be found to reduce current tensions through dialogue."

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

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