Iran fears that Donald Trump is preparing to order a military attack on its regional interests in the final three weeks of his administration and has warned it would retaliate against US bases in the Middle East.
Concerns have increased in Tehran over the past week that the US president could authorise a strike against Iranian proxy groups operating in Iraq, or a more extensive attack against Iran, a foe his government has attempted to break through nearly four years of economic sanctions and military muscle.
The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Thursday accused Trump of constructing a pretext to attack as the clock winds down on his sole term in office. Zarif’s remarks followed the presence of two US B-52 bombers in the region earlier this week, and an aircraft carrier redeployed to the Indian Ocean.
“Instead of fighting Covid in US, @realDonaldTrump & cohorts waste billions to fly B52s & send armadas to OUR region,” Zarif said in a tweet. “Intelligence from Iraq indicate plot to FABRICATE pretext for war. Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests.”
Throughout Trump’s time in office, Iraq has been a theatre for both direct and proxy clashes between Tehran and Washington. One year ago on Sunday, a US drone assassinated the powerful Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, outside Baghdad airport and Iran then launched up to 30 ballistic missiles at US bases in central Iraq and the northern city of Erbil. The flashpoints drew the two sides closer to an extended confrontation than at any time in recent decades.
Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, joined in the warnings: “I saw on the news that the Americans are on alert for fear of the revenge (over Suleimani’s killing) and have flown two B-52 bombers over the Persian Gulf.
“All their military bases in the region are covered by our missiles. I advise the White House evictee (Trump) not to turn the New Year into mourning for Americans,” he said.
The top commander of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards added that Iran was fully prepared to respond. “Today, we have no problem, concern or apprehension toward encountering any powers. We will give our final words to our enemies on the battlefield,” Gen Hossein Salami said at a ceremony at Tehran University for the anniversary of Suleimani’s death.
Suleimani’s replacement, Brig Gen Esmail Ghaani, warned at the ceremony that “freedom seekers” within the US could retaliate for the attack, telling the US that “inside your own home, there might be those who want to respond to the crime that you committed”.
In the year since Suleimani’s death, a series of rocket attacks against Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the US embassy is located, have drawn bellicose threats from Trump and the outgoing secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who has spearheaded attempts to topple the Iranian regime through a so-called “maximum pressure” policy of sanctions.
Over the past decade, nearly all rocket attacks into the Green Zone have been carried out by Iranian-allied militia groups. As Trump’s term has neared its end, the attacks have taken on greater meaning. The proxies are determined to create an impression of resilience and defiance, and Trump wishes to avoid appearing to leave office under fire.
Iraqi militias are also enmeshed in a power struggle with the Iraqi prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a US ally, whom Trump officials have leaned on to crack down on leaders of the militia groups. Iraqi forces have at times detained rocket crews, but have not secured convictions, preferring to avoid directly opposing their powerful neighbour, which holds significant sway over events in Iraq.
Officials in Baghdad are concerned that militia groups may attempt to mark the first anniversary of Suleimani’s death and that of a second Iranian allied military leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in the same strike. “Messages have been delivered to them,” said an official close to the Iraqi president, Barham Salih. “They are being watched very closely.”
A US official briefed reporters in Washington earlier this week that preparations for a militia strike had been observed in Iraq. In the days before Christmas, Trump appeared to put Iraqi militias on notice. “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,” he wrote on 23 December.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon said on Thursday it would withdraw the aircraft carrier Nimitz and its support ships from the coast of the Horn of Africa, where it had been stationed after being ordered back to the region late last year. The announcement was seen as a conciliatory sign from Washington.
But in another development likely to increase tensions in the region Iran on Friday told the United Nations nuclear watchdog that it plans to enrich uranium to up to 20% purity, a level it achieved before its 2015 accord.
The move is the latest of several recent announcements by Iran to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it plans to further breach the deal, which it started violating in 2019 in retaliation for Washington’s withdrawal from the agreement and the reimposition of US sanctions against Tehran.
Additional reporting: agencies.