US-Iran tensions escalate despite UN efforts



Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in New York on September 26th, a day after addressing the UN General Assembly. [Kena Betancur/AFP]

Tensions between the US and Iran escalated on Thursday (September 26th) as Washington deployed more troops to the Gulf and Tehran challenged the US to provide evidence it attacked Saudi oil facilities.

The Pentagon announced it was sending 200 troops with Patriot missiles to bolster Saudi Arabia's defences following the strikes this month that knocked out half of the kingdom's oil production.

The announcement followed a week of diplomacy at the UN, where European leaders unsuccessfully tried to arrange a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

The US, France, Germany, Britain and Saudi Arabia have all, to varying degrees, blamed Iran for the brazen September 14th attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US shared evidence on the attacks with other countries during the UN General Assembly.

"I think now it has struck them how clear it is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is not prepared to do the right thing and behave like a normal nation," Pompeo said Thursday.

The Iranians "used their usual method of trying to obscure this through use of a proxy force. They had to know it was the case that the world would rally against them, and yet they still chose to do it", he added.

Tehran denies responsibility, and the attacks have been claimed by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah).

Saudi call for 'united front'

In an address to the UN General Assembly, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir urged a united front against Iran.

"It is a vile and cowardly regime, which hides behind its affiliated militias, pushing them to claim responsibility," al-Jubeir said.

"This regime is only checked by a firm and unified stand and the application of maximum and sustained pressure until it desists from its terrorist behaviour," he added.

In its latest move to ratchet up pressure, the US banned senior Iranian regime figures and their families from entering the US, after announcing earlier it would punish Chinese companies that bought Iranian oil.

The US Defence Department said the troop deployment would involve one battery of surface-to-air missiles, along with four Sentinel radars used for air and missile defence systems.

In addition, two more Patriot batteries and one THAAD ballistic missile interception system are being readied in case a decision is made to also supply them to the Saudis, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.

"This deployment will augment the kingdom's air and missile defence of critical military and civilian infrastructure," he said.

"It is important to note these steps are a demonstration of our commitment to regional partners, and the security and stability in the Middle East," he added.

"Other countries have called out Iranian misadventures in the region, and we look for them to contribute assets in an international effort to reinforce Saudi Arabia's defence," he said.

New nuclear deal breach

Meanwhile, the UN's nuclear watchdog confirmed Thursday that Iran has started using advanced models of centrifuges to enrich uranium, in a new breach of the 2015 agreement with world powers.

Advanced centrifuges at Iran's Natanz facility "were accumulating, or had been prepared to accumulate, enriched uranium", the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report seen by AFP.

The centrifuges concerned are 20 IR-4 centrifuges and a further two "cascades" of 30 IR-6 centrifuges, the report said.

Enriched uranium is needed to produce nuclear fuel, but higher levels of enrichment can also be used to make the fissile core of an atomic bomb.

In order to multiply the effects of the enrichment of a single machine, large numbers of centrifuges are interconnected to form cascades.

The IAEA report said that Iran was also pressing ahead with previously reported plans to install further cascades of advanced centrifuges.

Under the 2015 deal that puts curbs on Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, Tehran is only meant to enrich uranium using less efficient IR-1 centrifuges.

The IR-4 and IR-6 models can produce enriched uranium much faster than the IR-1 models.

Iran has always insisted that its nuclear programme is peaceful.

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