'Sponsor of terrorism': Obama slams Iran months after saying it's off terrorist list

US President Barack Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
US President Barack Obama has labeled Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism” and countries in the Gulf region have a right to be concerned about Tehran’s activities. The move comes less than three months after Iran was taken off a US terror list.

President Obama made the scathing comments in an exclusive interview with the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, his first ever with an Arab publication.

“Iran clearly engages in dangerous and destabilizing behavior in different countries across the region. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism,” he told the newspaper, as cited by AlArabiya.

Obama continued his attack on Tehran by saying Iran was responsible for supporting “violent proxies inside the borders of other nations.”

“It helps prop up the Assad regime in Syria. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It aids the Houthi rebels in Yemen.So countries in the region are right to be deeply concerned about Iran’s activities,” the US president said in the interview quoted by AlArabiya.

READ MORE: Iran, Hezbollah left off US terror threat listing

Obama’s scathing criticism of Iran comes less than three months after Tehran was excluded from an annual terrorism report by the US. Iran had been praised for its efforts in fighting Sunni extremists, including the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL), with the report noting Tehran was pushing to keep “ISIL from gaining large swaths of additional territory” in Iraq.

As relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plummeted following Washington’s negotiations with Iran regarding a nuclear framework agreement, relations with Tehran seemed to grow warmer.

The Obama administration even went as far as ensuring that Iranian recognition of Israel would not be part of the Senate’s Iran bill. The proposal will allow Congress to voice its approval or disapproval of sanctions relief for Iran in the event of a deal being finalized by June 30.

Despite Obama’s softer tone towards Tehran over the last couple of months, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javed Zarif wasn’t surprised by the US president’s outburst, telling the Asharq Al-Aswat newspaper that the US was playing a blame game.

“The US president’s statements are merely a repetition of his previous unfounded accusations to appease his allies,” he said, according to the FARS news agency.

"Our policies in the region are based on consolidating friendship and cooperation as well as conducting responsible acts to reinforce stability and guarantee regional security,” Zarif added.

The interview by the US president comes ahead of a planned Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting at Camp David on Thursday. Despite Obama’s overtures to the region, saying “there should be no doubt about the commitment of the United States to the security of the region and to our GCC partners,” a number of GCC partners are set to snub the event.

The majority of the region’s ruling Sunni monarchs, including Saudi King Salman, have decided to skip the summit. Instead, they are sending lower-level officials in what is being seen as a diplomatic snub towards Washington.

Despite US support for the Saudi-led coalition, which has been carrying out bombing missions in Yemen against Shiite Houthi anti-government forces, Arab leaders have become frustrated with Obama for his continued engagement with Iran regarding a nuclear deal, and the failure of Washington to put pressure on Israel to accept a two-state solution with Palestine.

During his interview with Asharq Al-Aswat, the US president said that if the nuclear deal was successful, it could help to re-shape Tehran’s policy in the region. “More Iranians could see that constructive engagement—not confrontation—with the international community is the better path,” Obama said.

READ MORE: Snubbed: Most Gulf Arab rulers send deputies to Obama summit

The P5+1 group, which includes the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, reached a framework deal with Iran at the end of March. However, this needs to be finalized. If the deal does go-ahead, in return for restricting its nuclear program, Tehran would gain much needed sanction relief, which would help kick-start its economy.

Saudi Arabia is fearful of a financially strengthened Iran, with Riyadh believing it would allow Tehran to increase its support of Shiite movements across the region, such as in Yemen or Syria.

With the US becoming more self-sufficient in terms of energy and less reliant on oil from the Gulf region, this is having an effect on relations between Washington and Saudi Arabia. "The leverage is much more in Washington than in the Gulf,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington and former chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, according to Reuters.

With the Sunni states in the Gulf fearing the possibility of a resurgent Iran, they have been seeking greater military commitments from Washington. However, the US has been reluctant to make any binding agreements to ensure it’s not dragged into a wider regional conflict.

In an interview with the New York Times in April, Obama engaged in thinly veiled criticism of Riyadh, implying it wasn’t doing enough to stop militants from the country joining terrorist groups like the Islamic State, saying their internal threats could be as great as their external threats.

“I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have,” the US president said.

Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister, said the Obama administration “is not interested in over-indulging” the Gulf States on issues that concern them.

“Are they (the Gulf States) going to go back feeling reassured? I don’t think so,” he told reporters in Washington.