Nassar Karmi, Jon Gambell and Emily Schmall
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's president warned Wednesday that European soldiers in the Mideast "could be in danger" after three nations challenged Tehran over breaking the limits of its nuclear deal. Tehran's top diplomat meanwhile acknowledged that Iranians "were lied to" for days following the Islamic Republic's accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian jetliner that killed 176 people.
President Hassan Rouhani's remarks in a televised Cabinet meeting represent the first direct threat he's made to Europe as tensions remain high between Tehran and Washington over President Donald Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the deal in May 2018.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's admission, which came at a summit in New Delhi on Wednesday, represents the first time an Iranian official referred to earlier claims from Tehran that a technical malfunction downed the Ukraine International Airlines flight as a lie. The shootdown — and subsequent days of denials that a missile had downed it — sparked days of angry protests in the country.
The current tensions between Iran and the U.S. reached fever-pitch two weeks ago with the American drone strike in Baghdad that killed the powerful Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The general had led Iranian proxy forces abroad, including those blame for deadly roadside bomb attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile strike targeting Iraqi military bases housing U.S. forces early last Wednesday, just before an anti-aircraft battery shot down the Ukrainian airliner taking off from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Amid all of this, Britain, France and Germany launched the so-called "dispute mechanism" pertaining to Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Speaking before his Cabinet, Rouhani showed a rarely seen level of anger in his wide-ranging remarks Wednesday.
"Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger," Rouhani said. "We want you to leave this region but not with war. We want you to go wisely. It is to your own benefit."
Rouhani did not elaborate.
European forces have been deployed alongside Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. France also maintains a naval base in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, while Britian has opened a base in the island nation of Bahrain.
Rouhani separately criticized Europe's "baseless" words regarding the nuclear deal. Iran had been holding out for Europe to offer a means by which Tehran could sell its oil abroad despite U.S. sanctions. However, a hoped-for trading mechanism for other goods hasn't taken hold and a French-pitched line of credit also hasn't materialized.
After Soleimani's killing, Iran announced it would no longer abide by any of the nuclear deal's limits, which had been designed to keep Tehran from having enough material to be able to build an atomic bomb if it chose. However, Iran has said it will continue to allow the United Nations' nuclear watchdog access to its nuclear sites. Rouhani on Wednesday also reiterated a longtime Iranian pledge that Tehran doesn't seek the bomb.
The European nations reluctantly triggered the accord's dispute mechanism on Tuesday to force Iran into discussions, starting the clock on a process that could result in the "snapback" of U.N. and EU sanctions on Iran.
The Europeans felt compelled to act, despite objections from Russia and China, because every violation of the deal reduces the so-called "breakout time" Iran needs to produce a nuclear bomb, Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told parliament. Under the deal's limits, experts believed Iran needed a year to be able to have enough material for a weapon.
Zarif, speaking in New Delhi at the Raisina Dialogue, blamed U.S. "ignorance" and "arrogance" for "fueling mayhem" in the Middle East. However, he also acknowledged the anger Iranians felt over the plane shootdown.
"In the last few nights, we've had people in the streets of Tehran demonstrating against the fact that they were lied to for a couple of days," Zarif said.
Zarif went onto praise Iran's military for being "brave enough to claim responsibility early on."
However, he said that he and Rouhani only learned that a missile had down the flight on Friday, raising new questions over how much power Iran's civilian government has in its Shiite theocracy. Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which shot down the aircraft, knew immediately afterward its missile downed the airline.
The Guard is answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is expected to preside over Friday prayers in Iran for the first time in years over anger about the crash.
But there was a sense that the chance for immediate further retaliation by Iran against the U.S. may have lifted. Hossein Salami, the head of the Guard, said in a speech that Iran's "war project was closed since the people stood" against American pressure.
"Now, we are moving toward peace," Salami said.
That contradicted Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard's aerospace program, who blamed the U.S. in part for the shootdown and vowed further revenge.
"Certainly these consecutive blows will continue and we will avenge the blood of these martyrs on them," said Hajizadeh, who only days earlier apologized and said "I wish I were dead."
Later Wednesday, Iranian state media said the British ambassador to Iran, Robert Macaire, had left the country. Macaire left after being given what the state-run IRNA news agency described as "prior notice," without elaborating. Britain's Foreign Office insisted Macaire's trip to London was "routine, business as usual" and was planned before his arrest in Tehran. It said he planned return to Iran.
Macaire had been held after attending a candlelight vigil Saturday in Tehran over Iran shooting down the Ukrainian jetliner. The vigil quickly turned into an anti-government protests and Macaire left shortly after, only to be arrested by police.
In Ukraine, forensic analysts expect to start decoding next week the flight data recorders recovered from the downed plane. The recorders, known as black boxes, have yet to be transported to Ukraine.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Schmall from New Delhi. Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.