US President Donald Trump on Sunday said that the US has identified 52 Iranian sites it would hit if Tehran retaliates against the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, stepping back from more conciliatory comments he made after the drone strike on the Islamic Republic’s most powerful military commander.
Trump’s tough talk late on Saturday followed Tehran’s threat of a protracted response, and eclipsed his assertion a day earlier that the US hadn’t launched the attack near Baghdad airport on Thursday to “start a war.” It also seemed to reverse the efforts of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who in the past two days has repeatedly reaffirmed that the US remains committed to defusing tensions with Iran as he talked with officials across the West Asia and Russia. Stocks in the Gulf went into retreat.
In a strong response, the military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader said Tehran’s response to the killing by the US of its most most influential general will “for sure be military”. Major General Hossein Dehghan told CNN that Iran would retaliate directly against US “military sites”.
Mourners take to streets
Soleimani’s body arrived in Iran on Sunday, and thousands of mourners poured into the southwestern city of Ahvaz to attend services and sermons, according to footage on state TV. The body will be taken to funeral processions across the country before his burial, expected Tuesday, in his southeastern hometown of Kerman, state TV said.
In Baghdad on Saturday, thousands attended memorial services for the general and a powerful Iraqi militia commander also killed in the strike. Iraq’s parliament is due to hold a session Sunday to discuss whether it’s time for US troops to withdraw.
“Iran will have to first settle a score with the US” over the killing of Soleimani before discussing the prospect of Iran-US talks, foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said in Tehran on the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Bracing for response
The West Asia has been girding for vengeance and a possible escalation of the proxy war between the US and Iran that’s been playing out for years. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed on Saturday that the US will witness “the effects of their mistake for “many, many years to come,” and another Iranian official told the state broadcaster that three dozen US military bases and facilities are within reach of Iran’s defense forces, the closest in Bahrain.
Gulf states that are possible targets for Iranian reprisal urged calm as the prospect of a new conflict in the world’s top energy-exporting region loomed. Tehran’s capacity for retaliation may be crimped, however, by the dire condition of the Iranian economy, which has been clobbered by American sanctions reimposed after Trump withdrew from the landmark nuclear accord in 2018. Moreover, months of anti-government protests have challenged the regime’s dominance at home, as well as in Iraq and Lebanon, where Soleimani worked with proxy militias that extended Iran’s reach across the West Asia.
There was some immediate fallout, however. Rockets slammed on Saturday into Baghdad’s Green Zone, which contains the US Embassy and an airbase that houses American troops. No coalition casualties were reported.
Trump justifies Iraq strike
Trump said he approved the strike in Iraq because Soleimani was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks” against American diplomats and military personnel, though he provided no evidence to back up that claim. Some 3,500 additional US troops were ordered dispatched to the region after Soleimani’s assassination, to join more than 50,000 personnel already there.
The killing sent global markets reeling. Oil futures in London and New York at one point surged by more than 4 per cent, gold hit the highest in four months and 10-year Treasury yields headed for the biggest drop in three weeks. The S&P 500 Index declined.
Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul market, the largest in the region and one of the world’s top 10, was trading 2.4 per cent down with most shares in the red. Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest listed firm, shed 1.7 per cent to trade at 34.55 riyals and its capitalisation now stands at $1.84 trillion — well under the $2.0 trillion sought by Saudi rulers.
Aramco had priced its landmark initial public offering at 32 riyals ($8.53) per share and it soared the maximum limit to 35.2 riyals on its December 11 market debut.
“Investors who were hoping for lower geopolitical tension in the West Asia, North Africa region in 2020 got their hopes dashed on the second day of the year,” said Mohammed Ali Yasin, chief strategy officer at Abu Dhabi-based Al Dhabi Capital. “2020 will continue to be a year of high geopolitical tensions in our region.”
Soleimani, who headed the unit responsible for the foreign operations of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was a household name in Iran where he’s celebrated for helping to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and countering US influence. He’d been sanctioned by the US since 2007, and in May, Washington designated the Guards a foreign terrorist organisation. Iran named Esmail Ghaani, another veteran of West Asian conflicts, as Soleimani’s replacement.
Preceding US administrations had balked at assassinating the general, wary of the repercussions despite his responsibility for hundreds of US fatalities. Democratic lawmakers have criticised Trump for acting without notifying Congress.
The N-deal issue
Ever since the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, then doubled down with a campaign to cripple the Iranian economy through sanctions, hostility between the countries has threatened repeatedly to erupt into a broader confrontation. A defiant Iran has revved up its nuclear fuel programme, and is blamed by Washington for attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and for a strike on Saudi Arabian facilities that briefly knocked out 5 per cent of global crude supply.Iran has denied responsibility for those attacks.
World asks for de-escalation
The UK repeated its call for de-escalation and the EU expressed concern about the increasing tensions in Iraq, including the killing of Soleimani. Josep Borrell, the commissioner for foreign and security policy, invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Brussels to continue engagement, reiterating the importance of preserving the nuclear deal. Borrell “urged Iran to exercise restraint and carefully consider any reaction to avoid further escalation, which harms the entire region”.
Amid spiralling US-Iran tensions, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Sunday had a conversation with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif and said India remained deeply concerned about the levels of tension in the region. Jaishankar noted that developments have taken a very serious turn.
“Just concluded a conversation with FM @JZarif of Iran. Noted that developments have taken a very serious turn. India remains deeply concerned about the levels of tension. We agreed to remain in touch,” the External Affairs Minister tweeted.
Iraq to expel US troops
Iraq’s parliament voted to expel US troops from the country in response to the assassination of a powerful Iranian military commander by an American drone in Baghdad.
A Lebanese proxy nurtured by the slain general, Qassem Soleimani, vowed to attack American soldiers and bases as Gulf Arab states tried to head off the kind of retribution that would plunge the combustible region into a broad military confrontation.