The attack on the Saudi city of Najran came after Iran announced it has quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity, though still at a level far lower than needed for atomic weapons, a year after the U.S. withdrew from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Underlining the tensions, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seeking expanded executive powers to better deal with "economic war" triggered by the Trump's administration's renewal and escalation of sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.
"A person or a nation might be under pressure but the Iranian nation will not bow to bullies," Rouhani vowed in a televised speech Tuesday night.
By increasing production, Iran soon will exceed the stockpile limitations set by the nuclear accord. Tehran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to put forth 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, which is the biggest rival in the region to the U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia.
Before a briefing on the situation to Congress , acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan suggested the U.S. military response to Iranian threats has already had an effect. He said U.S. military moves have given Iran "time to recalculate" and as a result the potential for attacks on Americans is "on hold," although the threat has not gone away.
In the drone attack, the Houthis' Al-Masirah satellite news channel said 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 Houthis.
A statement 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 have sparked Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen, which have been widely criticized internationally for killing civilians.
Civilian airports across the Middle East often host military bases.
The New York Times reported last year that American intelligence analysts were based in Najran, assisting the Saudis and a deployment of U.S. Army Green Berets on the border. Lt. Col. Earl Brown, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said there were "no U.S. personnel involved nor present at Najran" at the time of the attack.
Last week, the Houthis launched a coordinated drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline. 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.
In its nuclear program announcement Monday night, Iranian officials stressed that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67% limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal, making it usable for a power plant but far below what's needed for an atomic weapon.
Iran said it had told 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.
President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to pull the U.S. from the Iran deal, has alternated tough talk with more conciliatory statements - a strategy he says is aimed at keeping Iran guessing at the administration's intentions. Trump also has said he hopes Iran calls him and engages in negotiations.
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 goes back four decades. While both sides say they don't seek war, many worry any miscalculation could spiral out of control. A Trump tweet Monday warning Iran would face its "official end" if it threatened the U.S. drew sharp rebuke from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter, who used the hashtag #NeverThreatenAnIranian.
In Iran, it remains unclear what powers Rouhani seeks. In Iran's 1980s war with Iraq, 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, according to IRNA. He added that country "is united that we should resist the U.S. and the sanctions."
Meanwhile, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told an audience in the United Arab Emirates on Monday night that America "needs to engage more in the world and intervene militarily less." While "Iran's behavior must change," he urged the U.S. not to engage in unilateral action and that American "military must work to buy time for diplomats to work their magic."
"I will assure you no nation will be more honest with you than America," the retired Marine Corps general said, according to a report in the state-linked newspaper The National. "America will frustrate you at times because of its form of government, but the UAE and America will always find their way back to common ground, on that I have no doubt."
Mattis abruptly resigned in December after clashing with Trump over withdrawing troops in Syria. He spoke at a previously unannounced speech before a Ramadan lecture series in honor of Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed.
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