U.S. Awaits Threatened Iran Retaliation Over Fakhrizadeh Killing, Withdraws Baghdad Embassy Staff

The assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh threatens has once again spiked tensions in the Middle East with just weeks of President Donald Trump's term remaining.

Fakhrizadeh—considered the father of Iran's nuclear project and namechecked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu years ago—was killed by a team of unidentified assassins on a county road to the east of Tehran last week, despite close Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps protection.

Israel has refused to confirm or deny involvement, per long standing policy, but multiple reports have cited American intelligence officials crediting the Israelis with the operation.

The assassination marks a serious escalation of the U.S.-Israeli effort to undermine Iran's nuclear project, which is increasingly unrestrained as the JCPOA (from which Trump withdrew in 2018 with Israeli backing) remains stuck in the doldrums.

The U.S. has so far declined to comment, or to clarify whether the Trump administration knew about or approved the attack. Iran has vowed revenge against all those responsible.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad—which is regularly targeted by Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias—is now temporarily withdrawing some staff amid security concerns, The Washington Post reported Wednesday citing an unnamed source familiar with the withdrawal. CNN later confirmed the report citing three anonymous sources familiar with the matter.

The Post said it remains unclear how many staff will be withdrawn. Its source described the move as "de-risking." A diplomatic source told CNN the withdrawal would be "slight," noting that the State Department is allowing more staff than usual to take leave.

The withdrawal will continue until after the January 3 anniversary of the U.S. assassination of top Iranian commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, which earlier this year brought Washington, D.C. and Tehran to the brink of war.

Iran eventually fired ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases housing American troops, injuring more than 100. But an unnamed defense official told CNN that the U.S. still expects more retaliation. "They aren't going to give up," the source said.

The State Department refused to confirm or deny the reports of a Baghdad drawdown A spokesperson said: "We do not comment on the details of any adjustments but remain committed to a strong diplomatic partnership with Iraq."

"Ambassador [Matthew] Tueller remains in Iraq and the Embassy in Baghdad continues to operate," the spokesperson added.

"The State Department continually adjusts its diplomatic presence at Embassies and Consulates throughout the world in line with its mission, the local security environment, the health situation, and even the holidays... Ensuring the safety of U.S. government personnel, U.S. citizens, and the security of our facilities, remains our highest priority.

Iran has blamed Israel, with the protection and approval of the U.S., for the Fakhrizadeh assassination, which harks back to the years before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal in which several Iranian nuclear scientists were killed by hit squads—allegedly with Israeli and American involvement.

Iranian intelligence now says it has identified the individuals involved in the operation, though has not revealed them publicly and was unable to apprehend any of the attacks or their accessories either at the scene of afterwards. According to The New York Times, this latest high-profile security lapse has set off a blame game within the regime.

The U.S. presence in Baghdad has long been a target for Iran and its proxies. During the American occupation of the country following the 2003 invasion, hundreds of American soldiers were killed by insurgents using Iranian-supplied weapons.

In more recent years, the Baghdad Embassy and the surrounding "Green Zone" have regularly been hit by rockets and other munitions fired by militia groups backed by Tehran. Convoys carrying American military equipment have also been targeted in IED attacks.

The Iranian regime wields enormous influence in neighboring Iraq, facilitated by the disastrous American invasion and occupation of the country. Iran expanded its influence via its militias—which dominate the powerful Popular Mobilization Forces coalition of state-aligned armed groups—during Iraq's fight against the so-called Islamic State in the north of the country.

Observers have noted that U.S. influence in Iraq has waned further during President Donald Trump's term, a slide some say was exacerbated by the assassination of Soleimani which prompted some Iraqi lawmakers to demand full American withdrawal from the country.

The State Department has warned it may close the Baghdad Embassy entirely if its security cannot be guaranteed by the Iraqi government.

Last year, the facility was overrun and ransacked by Iraqi protesters, assisted by Iranian-backed militia fighters. The incident was among the reasons cited by administration officials for Soleimani's assassination weeks later while the commander was in Baghdad. PMU chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was among those killed alongside Soleimani.

Iraqi President Barham Salih, meanwhile, condemned last week's assassination and said the government rejects any moves that may disrupt the security and stability of the region, Iranian state media reported.

us embassy, baghdad, iran, iraq, mohsen fakhrizadeh
A general view shows the U.S. Embassy across the Tigris River in Iraq's capital, Baghdad on January 3. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty