BRUSSELS -- The U.S. defense chief has said that Washington is not seeking war with Iran, but is ready to defend U.S. interests against any attacks by Tehran.
The June 27 comments by acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper came as tensions continued to rise in the region, and Washington and Tehran continued exchanging angry rhetoric.
"The Iranian regime has been sowing chaos and conflict in the Middle East for 40 years. The United States is by no means the instigator of recent tensions in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran's hostile actions are an international problem that affect many nations," he told a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
Esper cited Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, a growing ballistic-missile program, support for international terrorism, and assaults on freedom of navigation in regional waterways.
"Let me be clear: The United States does not seek war with Iran," he said.
"Our strategy is at its core an economic and diplomatic one. Again, we do not seek armed conflict with Iran, but we are ready to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region. No one should mistake restraint for weakness," Esper added.
The NATO meeting came one week after U.S. President Donald Trump called off air strikes on Iran minutes before impact.
The U.S. policy toward Iran has garnered pushback from some European allies, including France and Germany, which have criticized Trump's decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran.