WASHINGTON — Iran's ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday denied that Tehran had given a green light to its proxies to attack U.S. forces in the Middle East, accusing U.S. officials of employing "fake intelligence."
In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi rejected statements from the Trump administration that Tehran posed a heightened danger to U.S. interests in the region.
"These are all allegations which are being produced by the same people who, in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, did the same," Ravanchi said, in an apparent reference to national security adviser John Bolton, who worked in George W. Bush's administration during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
"So we do not accept such an allegation. And all of these (allegations) are fake intelligence," Ravanchi said.
NBC News reported earlier Thursday that President Donald Trump's decision to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group and bombers to the Persian Gulf was based in part on intelligence that the Iranian regime had informed some of its proxy forces that they can now go after American military personnel and assets in the region, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence.
The intelligence showed that an Iranian official discussed activating Iranian-backed groups to target Americans, the officials said.
Trump said on Thursday that his administration had information Iran was "threatening" the United States, though he provided no details.
"We have information that you don't want to know about," Trump said. But he added that "we don't want to have to do anything."
Trump said he was ready to speak with Iranian leaders and come to an understanding that would allow the country to improve its economic prospects. "What I'd like to see with Iran, I'd like to see them call me. "
Trump added: "I look forward to the day where we can actually help Iran. We're not looking to hurt Iran.
Asked about Trump's request for talks, Ravanchi said Trump had derailed diplomacy by pulling the United States out of the nuclear agreement last year. The accord had been negotiated between Iran and six governments, including the United States.
"The first question that he has to answer is why he left the negotiating table, because we were talking to all participants of the nuclear deal, including the United States, within the framework of the joint commission of that deal. So all of a sudden he decided to leave the negotiating table," Ravanchi said.
"What is the guarantee that he will not renege again on the future talks between Iran and the United States?" the Iranian U.N. envoy said.
As ambassador to the United Nations, Ravanchi is the highest-ranking Iranian official in the United States, because the two countries have no diplomatic relations. He spoke to NBC News a day after Iran announced it would stop complying with elements of the 2015 nuclear deal in response to U.S. actions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday if his country did not get relief from tough sanctions within 60 days, then Tehran would resume enriching uranium to a higher level than allowed under the 2015 deal.
At the White House, Trump said Thursday his administration was ready for a dialogue with Iran as long as it promised not to pursue nuclear weapons. But Ravanchi said Iran was not looking to build a nuclear arsenal.
The Iranian diplomat, who took part in the negotiations for the 2015 deal, cited more than a dozen reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency finding Tehran was abiding by the accord. "We are not interested in nuclear weapons," he said.
The Trump administration issued yet more warnings to Iran later on Thursday. In a statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tehran had engaged in an “escalating series of threatening actions and statements” and added: “The regime in Tehran should understand that any attacks by them or their proxies of any identity against U.S. interests or citizens will be answered with a swift and decisive U.S. response.”
Democratic lawmakers have criticized the Trump administration for pulling out of the nuclear deal and accused Trump's national security adviser John Bolton of stoking tensions and opening the door to a possible war.
Trump said Thursday he valued Bolton's advice, while acknowledging the national security adviser offered a more hardline view.
Bolton "has strong views on things but that's OK. I actually temper John on things, which is amazing," Trump said.
"I have John Bolton and I have other people who are a little more dovish and ultimately I make the decision."
Trump also accused former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the Iran nuclear accord under the previous administration, of telling Iran not to hold talks with the United States.
"You know John Kerry, he speaks to them a lot. John Kerry tells them not to call," Trump said. He also accused Kerry of violating the law by allegedly providing advice to Iran.
Kerry rejected Trump's allegations through a spokesman. "Everything President Trump said today is simply wrong, end of story," the spokesman said. "He's wrong about the facts, wrong about the law, and sadly he's been wrong about how to use diplomacy to keep America safe."
Dan De Luce reported from Washington, and Andrea Mitchell from New York.