Michael Bowman and Shahla Arasteh contributed to this report.
President Donald Trump says he hopes the U.S. is not going to war with Iran amid rising tensions in the Middle East, as an Iran diplomat downplayed such prospects.
"I hope not," Trump said when asked about the possibility of a conflict with Tehran as he began talks with Swiss President Ueli Maurer. The U.S. and Iran do not have diplomatic ties but Switzerland represents U.S. interests in the Middle Eastern country.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders reiterated to reporters early Thursday that Trump wanted a "behavioral change" from Iran and would oppose any aggressive actions by the Islamic Republic.
Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-e-Ravanchi, downplayed that possibility, saying on National Public Radio's Morning Edition Thursday that his country was not interested in escalating regional tensions. "If something goes wrong, everyone loses," he said. But Ravanchi added, "It is our right to be prepared," and "It is our right to defend ourselves."
The diplomat accused the U.S. and regional countries of making "false allegations" about Iran.
A New York Times report, citing three U.S. officials, said Thursday that the White House escalated warnings after reviewing photographs of missiles on small vessels in the Persian Gulf that were installed by Iranian paramilitary forces. The report said the images fueled fears that Iranian forces would fire the missiles at U.S. naval ships.
Trump said Wednesday that there was "no infighting whatsoever" about his Middle East policies and that he was "sure that Iran will want to talk soon."
Those remarks came in response to reports in the Times and The Washington Post about clashing opinions between those in his administration who see Iran preparing to attack U.S. forces, and other officials, including some from European allies, who argue Iran's moves are defensive precautions in response to U.S. actions toward Iran.
Trump decided last year to withdraw from an international agreement limiting Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, and applied fresh actions to cut off Iran's oil and banking sectors in an attempt to alter the Iranian government's behavior.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Thursday that "the escalation by the U.S. is unacceptable and uncomfortable," and that despite the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Iran was exercising "maximum restraint."
The U.S. has ordered its non-emergency employees to leave the country's embassy in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and its consulate in Irbil as the Trump administration warned of threats against American forces in the Middle East from Iran or Iranian-backed proxies.
The move sparked sharp reactions on Capitol Hill.
"There are only two reasons for ordering their departure: We have credible intelligence that our people are at risk or in preparation for military action in Iran," said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey. "The Trump administration has not provided any information to this committee on the intelligence behind their decisions or what they plan to do in Iraq or Iran."
Menendez demanded the officials bring panel members up to date on "any plans to go to war with Iran."
Committee Chairman James Risch, an Idaho Republican, said he had been briefed on the unfolding situation in the Middle East and that a briefing of the full Senate was "in the works."
The Pentagon has dispatched an aircraft carrier and nuclear-capable bombers to the region in the past few days, with a Patriot missile battery and a landing platform dock ship on the way. The Patriot system offers protection from aircraft and missiles, while the LPD carries Marines and the aircraft, hovercraft or boats needed to put them ashore to fight in distant places.
But a major U.S. ally in the region, the UAE, said it would show "restraint" in the face of Iranian aggression.
"We need to emphasize caution and good judgment," UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Gargash said Wednesday. "It is easy to throw accusations, but it is a difficult situation. There are serious issues and among them is Iranian behavior."
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his country agreed with the U.S. that Iran poses a heightened threat. His comment Thursday came two days after a senior British officer in the U.S.-led military coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria said he had not seen an increased threat to his troops by Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.
Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika's statement to reporters contradicted the Trump administration, which has asserted for more than a week that it has detected potential Iranian threats against U.S. forces in the Middle East.