US, Iran draw back from brink but new threats show crisis not over

VIDEO: REUTERS
President Donald Trump said the United States would impose additional sanctions on Iran.
President Donald Trump said the United States would impose additional sanctions on Iran.PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI/WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD (REUTERS) - Iran spurned US President Donald Trump’s call for a new nuclear pact and a commander threatened more attacks after both sides appeared to back off from intensified conflict following the US killing of an Iranian general and Teheran’s retaliatory missile strikes.

Concern that the Middle East was primed for a wider war eased after Trump gave an address on Wednesday (Jan 8) that refrained from ordering more military action. But each side’s next move in their protracted shadow war was unclear.  

Iran fired missiles on Wednesday at sites in Iraq where US  troops were based in retaliation for the killing in a US drone attack of powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan 3.

Teheran’s foreign minister said this “concluded” Iran’s response to his death. 

The actions followed months of tension that has increased steadily since Washington withdrew in 2018 from Iran’s nuclear pact with world powers and reimposed sanctions that have driven down Teheran’s oil exports and hammered its economy.

Trump told Americans on Wednesday: “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it”.  The Iranian missiles fired on military bases in Iraq had not harmed any US troops, he said.  

Iran “appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned,” he said.  The US president also said it was time for world powers to replace Teheran’s 2015 nuclear accord with a new deal that would allow Iran to “thrive and prosper”.

But Trump, who was impeached last month and faces an election this year, said he would impose more stringent sanctions on Iran, without specifying what that would involve.

Iran’s UN ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said in response that Teheran could not trust any idea of dialogue when Trump was threatening to intensify the “economic terrorism” of sanctions, the official news agency IRNA reported.  

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards also issued new threats to Washington, with one senior commander, Abdollah Araghi, warning of “harsher revenge soon”, following the missile strikes, Iranian media reported. 

The new head of Iran’s Quds Force, which overseas its foreign military operations, said he would follow the course pursued by his predecessor Soleimani. 

“We will continue in this luminous path with power,” Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani said. Soleimani had carved out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well the United States and arch foe Israel.

Soleimani was a national hero in Iran whose funeral drew vast crowds of mourners over several days, but was viewed in the West as a dangerous and ruthless enemy. 

'ENCOURAGING INTELLIGENCE'

The military comments contrasted with Wednesday’s remarks by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who said Teheran did not want an escalation.

Zarif said on Twitter that Iran did not "seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression".

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had called Iran's missile attack a "slap on the face" for the United States and said Iran remained determined to drive US forces out of the region, a policy that analysts say it has pursued via its proxy forces.

But Washington said it had indications Teheran was telling its allies to refrain from new action against US troops.

US Vice-President Mike Pence told CBS News the United States was receiving "encouraging intelligence that Iran is sending messages" to its allied militias not to attack US targets.

Moqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi'ite cleric opposed to US and Iranian interference in Iraq, said the Iraq crisis was over and called on "Iraqi factions to be deliberate, patient, and not to start military actions".

 
 
 
 

Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia the United States blamed for an attack in Iraq in December that killed a US contractor, said "amidst these conditions, passions must be avoided to achieve the desired results" of expelling US forces.

That contrasted with fiery comments early on Wednesday from Qais al-Khazali, leader of another Iran-backed militia, who said Iraqi forces should respond to the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who died with Soleimani in the Jan 3 US strike.

Arab states, which lie across the Gulf from Iran and feared their region was being dragged into another conflict, also called for cooler heads to prevail in Iraq and beyond.

"The brotherly Arab nation of Iraq today is in need of solidarity among its people to avoid war and becoming the site of a battle in which it would lose most," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan wrote on Twitter.

In Trump's address on Wednesday, he repeated his promise not to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon - an ambition it denies ever having - and called for world powers to quit the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that he abandoned.

Trump said world powers should negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran to replace the one set in place under Barack Obama.

Analysts have said Iran, despite its strident words, has wanted to avoid a conventional war with superior US forces.

US and European government sources said they believed Iran had deliberately sought to avoid US military casualties in its missile strikes to prevent an escalation.

An Iranian army spokesman denied "foreign media reports" suggesting there was some kind of coordination between Iran and the United States before the attack to evacuate bases.