DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Yemen’s Houthi rebels said Tuesday they launched a bomb-laden drone into Saudi Arabia, targeting an airport with a military base — an attack acknowledged by the kingdom as Mideast tensions remain high between Iran and the United States.
It was not clear if there were any injuries or what the extent of damage was.
The attack on the Saudi city of Najran came as Iran announced it has quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity amid tensions with the U.S., underscored by an exchange of threats and taunts Monday on Twitter between President Donald Trump and Iran’s foreign minister.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, was quoted by the state IRNA news agency as telling a group of clerics that he is seeking expanded, wartime executive powers to better deal with an “economic war” triggered by the Trump administration’s pullout from the nuclear deal and escalating U.S. sanctions.
Iranian nuclear officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67% limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, making it usable for a power plant but far below what’s needed for an atomic weapon.
But by increasing production, Iran soon will exceed the stockpile limitations set by the accord. Tehran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to set new terms for the deal, or it will enrich closer to weapons-grade levels in a Middle East already on edge. The U.S. has deployed bombers and an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf over still-unspecified threats from Iran.
In the drone attack, the Houthis’ Al-Masirah satellite news channel said early Tuesday they targeted the airport in Najran with a Qasef-2K drone, striking an “arms depot.”
Najran, 840 kilometers (525 miles) southwest of Riyadh, lies on the Saudi-Yemen border and has repeatedly been targeted by the Iran-allied Houthis.
A statement earlier on the state-run Saudi Press Agency quoted Saudi-led coalition spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki as saying the Houthis “had tried to target” a civilian site in Najran, without elaborating.
Al-Maliki warned there would be a “strong deterrent” to such attacks and described the Houthis as the “terrorist militias of Iran.” Similar Houthi attacks in the past have sparked rounds of Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen, which have been widely criticized internationally for killing civilians.
Civilian airports throughout the Middle East often host military bases.
The New York Times last year reported that American intelligence analysts were based in Najran, assisting the Saudis and a U.S. Army Green Berets deployment on the border. The Pentagon and the U.S. military’s Central Command did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Last week, the Houthis launched a coordinated drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. Earlier this month, officials in the United Arab Emirates alleged that four oil tankers were sabotaged and U.S. diplomats relayed a warning that commercial airlines could be misidentified by Iran and attacked, something dismissed by Tehran.
Iran’s enrichment announcement came after journalists visiting the country’s underground enrichment facility in Natanz were given a statement by an unidentified nuclear scientist who wore a surgical cap and a mask. His outfit wasn’t explained, although Israel is suspected of targeting Iranian nuclear scientists.
Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, was quoted by IRNA as confirming the capacity had been quadrupled. He said Iran took this step because the U.S. had ended a program allowing it to exchange enriched uranium with Russia for unprocessed yellowcake uranium, as well as ending the sale of heavy water to Oman. Heavy water helps cool reactors producing plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons.
Kamalvandi said Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of the development. The Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog did not respond to a request for comment. Tehran long has insisted it does not seek nuclear weapons, though the West fears its program could allow it to build them.
Before Iran’s announcement, Trump tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”
Trump’s remarks reflect what has been a strategy of alternating tough talk with more conciliatory statements he says is aimed at keeping Iran guessing at the administration’s intentions. He also has said he hopes Iran calls him and engages in negotiations.
He described his approach in a speech Friday, saying, “It’s probably a good thing because they’re saying, ‘Man, I don’t know where these people are coming from,’ right?”
But while Trump’s approach of flattery and threats has become a hallmark of his foreign policy, the risks have only grown in dealing with Iran, where mistrust between Tehran and Washington stretches four decades. While both sides say they don’t seek war, many worry any miscalculation could spiral out of control.
IRNA, the state news agency, did not elaborate on the wartime powers that Rouhani is seeking but quoted the Iranian president as citing the 1980s war with Iraq, when a wartime supreme council was able to bypass other branches to make decisions regarding the economy and the war.
“Today, we need such powers,” Rouhani said, adding that country “is united that we should resist the U.S. and the sanctions.”
Shortly after Trump’s latest tweets, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded by tweeting that Trump had been “goaded” into “genocidal taunts.” Zarif referenced both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan as two historical leaders that Persia outlasted.
“Iranians have stood tall for a millennia while aggressors all gone,” he wrote. “Try respect – it works!”
Zarif also used the hashtag #NeverThreatenAnIranian, a reference to a comment he made during intense negotiations for the 2015 nuclear accord.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
In this Sunday, May 19, 2019, photo released by the U.S. Navy, an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter from the “Nightdippers” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 5 transports cargo from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during a replenishment-at-sea in the Arabian Sea. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeff Sherman/U.S. Navy via AP)