Harsh statements and threats from Iranian officials and military figures resumed Thursday although tensions between Washington and Tehran apparently eased after Iran's retaliatory missile strike following the U.S. killing of top general Qassem Soleimani, with world leaders stepping in to facilitate diplomatic channels.
Both sides appeared to step back Wednesday after Iran launched a series of ballistic missiles at Iraq's al-Asad airbase and another facility in Irbil housing American troops without causing any casualties. Claiming 80 soldiers were killed in the strike, Iran said the attack was retaliation for the U.S. strike that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the architect of its regional security strategy, in Iraq earlier this week.
As head of Iran's elite Quds Force, Soleimani had mobilized armed proxies across the region and was blamed for deadly attacks against Americans going back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He was instrumental in carving out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen using sectarian divisions, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well and arch-foe Israel.
However, many in the Middle East also remember Soleimani as a ruthless figure and mastermind of many massacres committed in Syria to help keep Bashar Assad in power. In Iran, he is seen by many as a national hero who played a key role in defeating the Daesh terrorist group and resisting Western hegemony.
President Hassan Rouhani said the strike on the bases was a legitimate act of self-defense under the U.N. Charter, but he warned that "if the U.S. makes another mistake, it will receive a very dangerous response."
In addition to launching the missile attack, Iran also abandoned its remaining commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal, which President Donald Trump had walked away from in May 2018. But Rouhani said Thursday that Iran would continue to cooperate with U.N. inspectors.
Senior Iranian military commanders, who joined Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Rouhani for Thursday's mourning ceremony for Soleimani in Tehran, struck a more defiant tone. Abdollah Araghi, a member of Iran's joint chiefs of staff, said the country's Revolutionary Guard "will impose more severe revenge on the enemy in the near future," according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
The new head of Iran's Quds Force, which oversees the Guard's foreign military operations, said he would follow the course pursued by his predecessor Soleimani. "We will continue in this luminous path with power," Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani said.
US SAYS READY FOR NEGOTIATIONS
On Wednesday, Trump signaled that he would not retaliate militarily for the strike on the bases. That raised hopes that the current standoff, which brought the two countries to the brink of an all-out war, may be winding down. In a letter to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft said the killing of Soleimani was self-defense and vowed to take additional action "as necessary" in the Middle East to protect U.S. personnel and interests.
The U.S. also stood "ready to engage without preconditions in serious negotiations with Iran," to maintain peace and security, she said.
U.S. Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans said administration officials had not provided evidence in classified briefings to back up Trump's assertion that Soleimani had posed an "imminent" threat to the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Democratic-led chamber would vote on a resolution intended to limit his military actions against Iran.
However, Iran's Ambassador to the U.N. Majid Takht Ravanchi dismissed as "unbelievable" what he said was President Donald Trump's call for the cooperation given Washington was imposing sanctions on Tehran, Iran's state news agency IRNA reported Thursday.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told CBS News in an interview the U.S. was receiving "encouraging intelligence that Iran is sending messages" to its allied militias to not attack U.S. targets.
Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who casts himself as a nationalist rejecting both U.S. and Iranian interference in Iraq, also said the crisis Iraq was experiencing was over and he urged militia groups not to carry out attacks. "I call on the Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions.," said Sadr, whom Washington has long regarded an ally.
Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia the U.S. blamed for an attack in Iraq in December that killed a U.S. contractor, said that "amid these conditions, passions must be avoided to achieve the desired results" of expelling U.S. forces.
But Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he and others in the military "fully expect" Shiite militia groups in Iraq, backed by Iran, to carry out attacks against U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Syria. Two rockets fell Wednesday in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, causing no casualties, the Iraqi military said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Satellite pictures of the al-Asad base before and after the strikes showed damage, including to aircraft hangers. The images offered limited insight into Iran's strategy but gave some indication of missile accuracy, an analyst said. "The impacts are not scattershot across empty fields or airstrips on the southern side of the base," Dara Massicot, a policy researcher at RANDCorporation, said, adding that they did not appear to be purely symbolic strikes. "Early warning, maybe tip-offs, missile failures, and on-base readiness saved lives," Massicot said. U.S. and European government sources said they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid U.S. military casualties in its missile strikes to prevent an escalation.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who leads the country's aerospace program, said that while Iran only fired 13 missiles at the two bases, "we were prepared to launch hundreds." He said Iran had simultaneously carried out a cyberattack against U.S. monitoring systems. He also repeated unsubstantiated claims that dozens of Americans were killed or wounded in the strikes. But he said the goal of the operation was not to kill anyone but to "strike the enemy's military machine."
Tasnim also quoted Gen. Ali Fadavi, the acting commander of the Guard, as saying the missile attack was "just one of the manifestations of our abilities." "We sent dozens of missiles into the heart of the U.S. bases in Iraq and they couldn't do a damned thing," he was quoted as saying.
POPE, LEADERS URGE RESTRAINT
Meanwhile, calls for restraint and reducing tensions came from various global and regional actors. In his annual foreign policy address that also touched on climate change and nuclear proliferation, Pope Francis warned Thursday that increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran are setting the stage for a broader conflict in the Mideast while jeopardizing efforts to rebuild Iraq.
Speaking to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, Francis denounced the "pall of silence" among world leaders about the long-running war in Syria, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the intensified fighting in Libya in his global roundup of areas of concern for the Catholic Church.
Vatican officials and Christian leaders in Iraq have voiced alarm about Friday's airstrike in Iraq and what it means for Iraq's already beleaguered Christian minorities.
EU chief Charles Michel defended the crumbling Iran nuclear deal Thursday after Trump urged Europe to quit it, but warned Tehran against "irreversible acts" that would sink the accord. The European parties – Britain, France and Germany – have led efforts to save the deal, which has been crumbling since Trump pulled out in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, and Michel insisted it remained vital.
Michel's warning follows Tehran's announcement of its latest step back from commitments under the 2015 deal, which saw it granted sanctions relief in return for curbs on its atomic program.
"The JCPOA agreement was an important achievement after 10 years of intense international negotiations and remains an important tool for regional stability," Michel's office said in its readout of his call with Rouhani. The statement said Michel had insisted "the EU has its own interests and its vision" – implicitly distancing EU capitals from Washington. However, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is constantly at odds with Brussels, said the 28-nation bloc should follow a stance closer to Israel and the U.S. on the Iranian issue.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also called for "an end to hostilities" in the Gulf and reaffirmed U.K.'s support for the nuclear deal in a phone with Rouhani, who in turn urged Britain to denounce the killing of Soleimani.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo that "Japan has been urging all parties involved to exercise self-restraint so it's our stance that we support the restrained response [by the U.S.]," according to remarks carried by Kyodo News.