WASHINGTON –US President Donald Trump said Saturday that he would be Iran’s “best friend” and that the Islamic republic could be a “wealthy” country if it renounced nuclear weapons, amid soaring tensions between the two nations.
“We’re not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon,” Trump told reporters outside the White House as he prepared to depart for Camp David for meetings on the situation with Iran, which downed a US drone earlier this week.
“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.
Trump last year withdrew the United States from an international accord designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief.
Tensions have been on the rise ever since then, as Trump reinstated sanctions designed to choke off Iranian oil sales and cripple its economy in an effort to force new nuclear negotiations.
He said Saturday that more sanctions were on the way, without elaborating.
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.
Trump disclosed Friday that he called off a US military strike on Iran at the last minute, saying it would be a disproportionate response to Thursday’s downing of a high-flying, unmanned US aircraft over the Strait of Hormuz.
“Everyone was saying I’m a war-monger, and now they say I’m a dove,” Trump said Saturday as he was peppered with questions about the Iran drama.
“I think I am neither, if you want to know the truth. I’m a man with common sense, and that’s what we need in this country, is common sense.”
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.
However, he said he’s still considering military action against Iran. Such action is “always on the table until we get this solved.”
The president said he aborted a military strike set for Thursday after learning 150 people would be killed. Trump said: “I don’t want to kill 150 Iranians. I don’t want to kill 150 of anything or anybody unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Trump also said “we very much appreciate” a decision by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard not to shoot down a US spy plane carrying more than 30 people.
Iran said they could have downed the plane that was flying alongside the drone, but chose not to.
His comments come after Tehran warned Washington that any attack would see its interests across the Middle East go up in flames.
“Firing one bullet towards Iran will set fire to the interests of America and its allies” in the region, armed forces general staff spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi told the Tasnim news agency.
“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,” Shekarchi warned.
Trump said Friday that the United States was “cocked & loaded” to strike Iran but pulled back at the last minute as it would not have been a “proportionate” response to Tehran’s shooting down of an unmanned drone.
Under pressure to respond to the high-stakes incident near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, Trump said the US was prepared to hit “3 different sites” Thursday night but that he scrapped the strikes “10 minutes” before they were to have been launched.
“I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General,” the president tweeted, saying he concluded it would not have been “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
According to excerpts of an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” conducted Friday morning at the White House, Trump said he had not given final approval to strikes against Iran, and that no planes were in the air.
“But they would have been pretty soon. And things would have happened to a point where you wouldn’t turn back or couldn’t turn back,” he said.
He added that he did not want war with Iran, but if it came to pass, there would be “obliteration like you’ve never seen before.”
The US president had struck a combative tone in initial comments Thursday about the downing of the Global Hawk surveillance aircraft, but as the pre-dawn incident whipped up fears of open conflict, Trump moved to dial back tensions.
Tehran insists that the drone violated its airspace — something Washington denies — but was prepared to accept on Friday that it might have done so by accident.
The drone could have entered Iran’s airspace over a mistake by “a general or some operators,” the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace arm, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh told state news agency IRNA on Saturday.
“Nonetheless, this was an act of trampling international aviation laws by a spy aircraft, which met our natural response,” Hajizadeh added.
The foreign ministry said it had summoned the charge d’affaires of the United Arab Emirates, from where the US drone launched, to protest against its decision to “put its installations at the disposal of foreign forces for aggression” against Iran.