Middle East on Edge for Anniversary of US Killing of Soleimani

The explosive slaying of Iran's leading general as he departed in a convoy from Baghdad International Airport set the stage for a year wrought with worsening tensions between Washington and Tehran, even as both governments were confronting severe outbreaks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Donald Trump's administration argued that the assassination of Revolutionary Guard Quds Force Major General Qassem Soleimani last January made the Middle East and the world a safer place. But on the one-year anniversary of the incident, officials of Iran, Israel and Iraq told Newsweek that tensions remain high across the region.

With less than three weeks left in Trump's tenure, the temperature was especially high for fear of a sudden escalation, planned or miscalculated, which could quickly lead to a conflict of unknown proportions and unforeseen consequences.

Alireza Miryousefi, spokesperson for Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations, said his country was ready to act should the U.S. seek to stir trouble.

"While it is true that there is an appearance that the U.S. is setting traps or provocations to provide an excuse to initiate armed conflict in the last days of the administration," Miryousefi told Newsweek, "Iran is fully prepared to defend itself and will, if it comes to pass, react openly and decisively."

The mission denounced "the military adventurism of the United States of America" in a New Year's Eve letter to the U.N. Security Council, taking note of recent high-profile U.S. military moves such as the flight of nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the Middle East.

It was the second such aerial show of strategic force that month, and the first since Trump tweeted a direct warning to Tehran in the wake of a rocket attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone. While the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier was set to depart the region, Trump remained more than capable of directing assets toward the Persian Gulf.

The Pentagon referred Newsweek's request for comment to U.S. Central Command, which did not immediately respond.

Such rocket attacks by Iraqi militias supportive of Iran have become relatively routine, but the latest caused damage to U.S. facilities and drew the ire of the commander-in-chief, who claimed there was "chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq."

"Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible," Trump tweeted on Dec. 20. "Think it over."

iraq, militia, solemani, muhandis, baghdad
An Iraqi fighter of the Popular Mobilization Forces stands guard beneath posters displaying portraits of slain Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani (R) and Popular Mobilization Forces deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis ahead of the first anniversary of their killing in a U.S. drone strike, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on January 2, 2021. The two mens' death sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and raised tensions between longtime foes U.S. and Iran. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

But Iran remains publicly undeterred, both by the Trump administration's current rhetoric and the broader U.S. attempt to force Iran to change its strategy by removing its most famous military leader.

"As to the assassination of General Soleimani, something that was almost universally condemned as an illegal and terror act (by even U.S. allies), it has not affected Iran's national security policy," Miryousefi said.

"What it has done is illustrate to the entire world the true nature of the Administration in flouting international law and norms, and the desperation it feels in its inability to bring Iran to its knees," he said. "Iran has endured Trump and his allies, and will continue its foreign and security policies as it always has."

Miryousefi also referred to tweets by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has addressed Trump directly on social media, warning the U.S. leader of alleged Israeli conspiracies to drag the U.S. into war.

"New intelligence from Iraq indicates that Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans—putting an outgoing Trump in a bind with a fake casus belli," the Iranian top diplomat tweeted. "Be careful of a trap,@realDonaldTrump."

Zarif then delivered a warning to the U.S. president.

"Any fireworks will backfire badly, particularly against your same BFFs," he said.

Iran has blamed Israel for the killing of another major Iranian figure, leading atomic scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a former Revolutionary Guard officer who helped establish its nuclear program, which Iran insists is solely for peaceful purposes. He was gunned down east of Tehran in an operation for which no nation or group has claimed responsibility.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has applauded Trump's tough line on Iran, praising his decision to leave the 2015 multinational nuclear deal, impose steep sanctions on the Islamic Republic and rally Arab states against the country.

While much of the world has called for the U.S. to reenter the nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), Israel and a number of Arab countries—especially the Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula—have expressed a preference for Trump's "maximum pressure" approach that has ratcheted up tensions in the region.

Israel has also stepped up a campaign of airstrikes targeting suspected Iran-linked sites in Syria, where Iran—along with Russia—backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his efforts to regain control of his country amid a civil war, and to defeat the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Israel also supported the Trump administration's decision to kill Soleimani.

"Qassem Soleimani was one of the most powerful people regarding the Shia axis in the Middle East," an Israeli official who requested anonymity told Newsweek. "I can surely say that after his disappearing from the world, the Middle East is a safer place for all the nations that seek peace and quietness."

But Israel remains alert at its disputed borders with both Syria and Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-supported Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement operates.

"I don't think it is quiet here, I think everything is very tense, we are much more ready than before to act against any hostile act that will be executed by Hezbollah operatives," the Israeli official said.

Like Iran, Israel has said it was preparing for the eventuality of conflict.

"We are preparing ourselves very, very intensively and not only to react against a terror attack," the Israeli official said, "but also to react against I would say a more intensive fighting day when both sides will have to fight against each other."

A Hezbollah spokesperson also recently told Newsweek that its forces are "always fully prepared" to fight if necessary.

lebanon, border, hezbollah, palestine, soleimani, muhandis, israel
A picture taken from the Israeli northern town of Metula by the border with Lebanon, shows Lebanese nationals sightseeing next to a billboard depicting slain Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (L) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, on the eve of the first anniversary of their killing in a U.S. strike. JALAA MAREY/AFP/Getty Images

The two sides have managed to avoid a third war after their last bout in 2006, but occasional border incidents occur, including alleged infiltration attempts over the summer from the Lebanese side. Israeli troops rushed to the northern border Tuesday after a suspect reportedly scaled the security fence there and briefly entered Israeli territory before being chased away with warning shots.

The Lebanese military later released a statement asserting that three Lebanese youths had been caught trying to cross the restricted boundary while drunk and were arrested.

But perhaps nowhere were U.S.-Iran frictions as palpable as in Iraq, a nation with close ties to both Washington and Tehran. As in Syria, the U.S. and Iran fought separate campaigns to defeat ISIS, but the countries' differing and often opposing goals have led them to the current risky path of provocations.

Caught in the middle, Iraqis have expressed frustration over a perceived lack of sovereignty since Iraqi militias supportive of Iran stormed the U.S. embassy compound on New Year's Eve 2019, and the Trump administration ordered Soleimani's killing just days later without Iraq's prior knowledge.

The operation was doubly insulting as it not only took out a foreign military head of a partner country but also the deputy leader of Iraq's own state-sponsored Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

An Iraqi official who asked not to be named said the incident has not contributed positively to Iraq's security situation.

"What this has led to is basically increased tensions. The draw-up to the anniversary tomorrow of the airstrike, there's a lot of activity taking place," the Iraqi official said. "There's a lot of tension, lots of people are talking about striking back and all this stuff."

The Iraqi official saw the two men as uniquely capable of controlling Iraq's array of largely Shiite Muslim militias, some of whom—like Iran's Revolutionary Guard as of last year—the U.S. has designated terrorist organizations. Prior to fighting ISIS, some of these groups targeted U.S. troops after the 2003 invasion, and they have once again begun to discuss expelling U.S. forces, as lawmakers voted to do shortly after the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis.

As Katyusha rockets continue to rain down on U.S. positions, the Iraqi government is finding it difficult to deal with these irregular forces that are now left without their previous, more unified leadership.

"Once you killed off Soleimani and Muhandis, these groups no longer had one person or two people that you can go to and talk to," the Iraqi official said. "And what we've seen is a lack of control with these groups and and the inability of the Iraqi government to have one or two people on their own that they can sit down with and say, 'listen, we've got to do X, Y, and Zed.'"

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U.S. President Donald Trump (R), and first lady Melania Trump walk off Air Force One after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland on December 31. Both U.S. and Iranian leadership has accused the other of attempting to provoke the other with attacks. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's attempts to reign in these forces have been met with limited success, as militias such as Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq have taken every opportunity to demonstrate their own popularity, influence and, ultimately, their power to challenge the state.

This lawlessness comes upon the backdrop of an Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council probe into Soleimani and Muhandis' killing, an investigation that has involved evidence related to Trump. Earlier this week it "reached an advanced stage," according to a press release. It is not yet clear what sort of actions the Iraqi government would be capable or willing to take if the U.S. or its leadership was found guilty.

The Iraqi state's apparent weakness in the face of both foreign powers and militias at home has further exacerbated the country's instability and concerns of potential conflict.

"What this has led to is basically increased tensions. The draw-up to the anniversary tomorrow of the airstrike, there's a lot of activity taking place," the Iraqi official said. "There's a lot of tension, lots of people are talking about striking back and all this stuff."

And while the official did not anticipate a major militia attack, acts ordered by a U.S. leader who has yet to accept his electoral loss just weeks away from his successor's inauguration could not be ruled out.

"People realize that Donald Trump has been quite selfish, and he has not taken the electoral loss lightly," the Iraqi official said. "And as selfish as he is, he has no qualms with letting the Iraqis, the Biden administration, all these guys pay the price of, on the 19th, striking a bunch of targets inside of Iran, knowing that the Iranians are going to respond, so it has become just basically making sure cooler heads prevail every single day between now and the 20th."