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Iran tests U.S. military messaging at UNGA

Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Istanbul in 2017.
Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Istanbul in 2017. Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tells Axios that Americans should ask themselves why U.S. soldiers should risk dying to protect Israeli and Saudi interests, and he thinks President Donald Trump is "determined not to get militarily involved" in Iran — but others in his orbit are trying to "drag him into" it.

The big picture: As leaders gather this week at the United Nations General Assembly, Iran and the U.S. are trying to figure out how to out-maneuver one another in a protracted dispute over the Iran nuclear deal, regional aggression, sanctions and oil sales.

Driving the news: The U.S. is considering retaliating on Iran for this month's attack on Saudi oil facilities that Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed credit for.

  • Iran's President Hassan Rouhani will lay out a proposal this week for a "Coalition for Hope" with confidence-building and non-aggression measures but also an effort to exclude foreign forces from the Persian Gulf.
  • Meanwhile, Iran wants European nations to defy the U.S. and let Tehran resume oil sales.

Go deeper: In a 90-minute discussion with journalists from Axios and other news outlets Sunday afternoon, Zarif continued to deny Iran was behind the Saudi oil attack and insist he seeks "a peaceful way out" of tensions with the U.S.

  • Zarif said Iran was hurt, not helped by the Saudi attack.
  • If anyone gained, he said, it's Trump because now "he's selling weapons" in the region and the U.S. has oil.
  • Saudis "want to fight their wars until the last American soldier," Zarif said.
QuoteAmerican soldiers are being killed protecting Israeli interests, protecting Saudi interests. I think that's something for Americans to think about."
— Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif

Between the lines: With Iran hawk John Bolton out as National Security Adviser and Benjamin Netanyahu's tenure as Israel's prime minister in question after elections, Iran is focusing its ire on U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

  • Zarif said Pompeo should be brought before the International Criminal Court for "trying to starve" the Iranian population (Pompeo told CBS earlier, "I don’t know why anyone listens to the Iranian foreign minister.").
  • The goal is to test messaging on Trump, who campaigned on reducing U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
  • Zarif said of the U.S. warm dealings with the Saudis after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, "After Khashoggi, the U.S. should shut up on human rights."

What's next: Iran will be watching this week to see how Bolton's days-old replacement, Robert O'Brien, the administration's former hostage negotiator, weighs in.