U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says the country is not immediately considering increasing troops in the Middle East in response to what he called Iran’s “misbehavior,” but warned that Washington and the world cannot ignore Iran’s actions.
In comments made at a news conference during a visit to Japan Saturday, Mattis called Iran the “biggest state sponsor of terrorism,” and said much of the rest of the world is watching.
He said, however, that despite the capability for the U.S. to send more forces to the Middle East, “right now, I don’t think it’s necessary.”
On Friday, the United States took its first steps in backing up tough talk about Iran, slapping new sanctions on 13 individuals and 12 entities linked to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its proxies across the Middle East.
The targets include Iranian support networks in China and the United Arab Emirates that have been working to help Tehran obtain technology and materials needed to advance its ballistic missile program.
The Treasury Department said sanctions were also levied on individuals and networks working with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force and the Iranian-backed Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
"These are just initial steps in response to Iranian provocative behavior," a senior administration official warned, calling Iran's recent behavior "not sustainable, not acceptable."
"Iran has a choice to make," the official added. "We will work positively with Iran when it abides by its international commitments while underscoring our commitment to aggressively counter Iran's destabilizing activities."
Friday's actions came as a result of what U.S. officials described as an ongoing process that included consultations with key U.S. agencies and also U.S. allies.
But officials said the trigger was Iran's January 29 test of a ballistic missile, which was "in defiance" of a U.N. resolution barring Iran from engaging in such tests.
A second senior administration official described Sunday's launch as "a clear threat to regional security."
The new sanctions are a culmination of the Trump administration's increasingly aggressive stance with Tehran, following a presidential campaign in which then-candidate Donald Trump said he was willing to rip up the nuclear deal former President Barack Obama and other world leaders negotiated with Iran.
Earlier this week, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn announced the U.S. was "officially putting Iran on notice."
Flynn was even more direct in a statement issued Friday. "The days of turning a blind eye to Iran's hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over," he warned.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer continued with the tough talk.
"President Trump is going to do everything he can to make sure Iran is stayed in check," Spicer said. "He is going to continue to be tough on Iran in a way that wasn't done in the past eight years."
Spicer also reiterated that the president was not taking any options off the table although "he understands the impact" of resorting to military action.
WATCH: Nothing 'Off the Table' Regarding Iran, Spicer Says
Earlier Friday, Trump took to Twitter to warn Iran directly.
"Iran is playing with fire — they don't appreciate how 'kind' President Obama was to them, " Trump tweeted. "Not me!"
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted a response Friday.
"Iran unmoved by threats as we derive security from our people," Zarif tweeted. "We'll never initiate war, but we can only rely on our own means of defense."
Late Friday, Iranian state television quoted a foreign ministry statement, which promised that Tehran would retaliate with sanctions of its own.
"Iran will impose legal restrictions on some American individuals and entities that were involved in helping and founding regional terrorist groups," the statement was quoted as saying.
The meaning or the impact of the promised Iranian sanctions was not immediately clear.
New U.S. sanctions
But senior administration officials in Washington said the new U.S. sanctions would have some bite.
Although all of the entities and individuals targeted are located overseas, all have "touch points" in the United States, one official said. Whether those involved the acquisition of U.S.-made, dual-use materials or interactions with the U.S. financial system, the Iranian efforts will be impacted, the official added.
U.S. officials also said the sanctions did not impact U.S. compliance with the Iran nuclear deal and that none of the individuals or entities had previously been sanctioned under the Obama administration.
Some analysts, however, are doubtful the sanctions will amount to anything more than messaging.
"The newest round of U.S. sanctions on Iran are unlikely to impact the IRGC Quds Forces and its proxy partner Lebanese Hezbollah heavily," Marie Donovan, an Iran analyst with the American Enterprise Institute's Critical Threats Project, told VOA by email. "The Islamic Republic will be able to rely on other networks."
And while much of the attention has focused on Iran's ballistic missile program, Trump administration officials have voiced significant concerns about Iran's use of proxy forces across the Middle East, and in Yemen in particular.
Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been engaged in a bloody civil war in Yemen, and earlier this week attacked a Saudi warship, killing two crew members.
"Iran has heavy influence, continues to arm and support the Houthis," a senior administration official said.
And while the official said Iran was not responsible "for every tactical decision, Iran in its relationships with proxies through the region bears responsibility for these groups that they are closely entwined with."
Harassment of ships
U.S. officials also cited concerns about a series of incidents in which Iranian vessels harassed American vessels, describing a January 2016 incident as an abduction of U.S. sailors.
Already, the U.S. appears to be backing up the concerns with action, sending the destroyer USS Cole to conduct patrols off the coast of Yemen with an eye on freedom of navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
But whether with the ballistic missile tests or with operations in the waters off Yemen, it may take some time before Tehran is ready to change its overall approach.
"The Iranian government carried out the [missile] test at this time in order to test [the] waters, " former Iranian diplomat Mehrdad Khansari told VOA Persian's NewsHour.
"Naturally, the Iranians want to see if Trump’s controversial rhetoric of recent months will translate into action," said Khansari, who served in Iran's pre-Islamist Revolution government.
Tony Shaffer, a retired intelligence officer now with the London Center for Policy Research, expects Iran will learn quickly that the Trump administration is unlikely to have nearly as much patience as its predecessor.
"If they fire at our ships, fire will be returned," Shaffer said. "If they do swarm operations, where they have these small boat operations doing dangerous things in close proximately to our ships, I think you can expect they will be fired on."
Also yet to be seen is what the new dynamic between Washington and Tehran will mean for Iran's proxies in both Iraq and Syria.
Analysts and others say, so far, the activity and rhetoric of the Iranian-backed militias has remained fairly consistent, with little change from the emboldened approach they began taking last year.
Much of that has involved Iranian propaganda talking up the militias' role in beating back the Islamic State terror group.
"Iran is using this threat of ISIS to promote this regional instability," cautioned Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "You cannot let the Iranian PR [public relations] narrative go unchecked."
But Taleblu said that narrative may well begin to change as the Trump administration begins to focus more heavily on its primary foreign policy objective — destroying IS.
"There are opportunities to marginalize Iran's presence in Iraq while you target ISIS," he said, using an acronym for the militant group.
For now, the Trump administration's first actions against Iran are meeting with the approval of congressional Republicans, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, both of whom have had marked differences with the president on other foreign policy matters, such as Russia.
"I hope the measures announced today by the Trump administration will serve as a first step toward a comprehensive strategy," McCain said in a statement.
"A coordinated, multifaceted effort to push back against a range of illicit Iranian behavior is long overdue," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said in a statement. "The announcement makes clear that it is a new day in U.S.-Iran relations."
White House Correspondents Cindy Saine and Mary Alice Salinas, Congressional Correspondent Michael Bowman, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Steve Herman, and VOA Persian's Guita Aryan and Deyhim Behzadi contributed to this report.