US, Iran pull back from confrontations but pause in hostilities could be short-lived

The fears of imminent war between Iran and United States seem to have subsided as both foes appear to back off from intensifying the conflict after the US assassinated a top Iranian commander.

The killing in Baghdad of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani at the express request of US President, Donald Trump, has thrown the Middle East into the most serious global security crisis.

Soleimani assasination sharply escalated an already tense contest in Iraq between U.S. and Iran-backed forces, made the battle against the Islamic State terrorists (IS) more difficult, and is likely to feed further regional upheaval. IS described the general’s demise as an act of divine intervention that benefitted terrorists.

President Donald Trump, in a televised address on Wednesday, said Iran appeared to be standing down after Tehran’s missile barrage on Iraqi bases housing American troops and allied forces that resulted in no casualties.

“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said. “No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well.”

Instead of announcing further military attack, Trump said the US “will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions” while it evaluated “options in response to Iranian aggression”.

Before Trump spoke, analysts said the limited nature of the Iranian strike appeared calibrated to prevent further hostilities. This signals an ease in tensions that had been building toward military confrontations.

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, wrote on Twitter, adding the country does “not seek escalation or war.”

However, Iran warned Trump of retaliatory moves if the United States acts again.

“If the US makes another mistake it will receive a very dangerous response,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as saying by Iran’s Tasnim news agency during a call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

But analysts believed the present de-escalation of hostilities is only in a lull before we enter another phase of the post-Soleimani “war.”

This is not a war in conventional terms, but one in which analysts said Iran’s focus would likely be to seek its ultimate goal to push out U.S. forces from the middle-east.

“Last night, they were given one slap,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said in a speech broadcast Wednesday on state television.  “Such military actions are not enough as far as the importance of retaliation is concerned. What’s important is that their corruption-creating presence should end,” he added.

Following the killing of Gen. Soleimani, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling for the expulsion of American forces.

Experts believed the region would remain tense as long as Washington rejects the withdrawal calls.

In a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late on Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi made a request to prepare to pull out American troops from the country.

Abdul Mahdi asked Pompeo to “send delegates to put in place the tools to carry out the parliament’s decision”, his office said in a statement, adding that the forces used in killing Soleimani had entered Iraq or used its airspace without permission.

However, the U.S. State Department said any U.S. delegation would not discuss the withdrawal of U.S. troops as their presence in Iraq was “appropriate.”

“There does, however, need to be a conversation between the U.S. and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about our financial, economic, and diplomatic partnership,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.


Start of big operations

An Iranian missile commander, on Thursday, maintained a stern tone when he claimed the missile strikes on military bases in Iraq were just the start of “big operations which will continue in the entire region”.

Brig Gen Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who is in charge of missile forces, told reporters in Tehran that the ballistic missile strikes on the al-Asad and Erbil bases, both Iraqi facilities hosting a US presence, were aimed at damaging the American “military machine” and not inflicting US casualties.

“If we were looking to kill, we could have designed the operation in a way such that 500 [Americans] would be killed in the first step, and if they had responded, a further 4,000 to 5,000 would be killed in the next steps within 48 hours,” he claimed.

In Washington, the US House of Representatives on Thursday approved a nonbinding resolution aimed at reining in the president’s ability to attack Iran in the future without congressional approval.

Congress was not consulted prior to the assassination, angering Democrats who fear Trump’s actions could trigger a cycle of escalation leading to war.

The House’s War Powers resolution directs Trump to terminate military operations against Iran except for self-defence and clarifies that the president presently does not have congressional authority to engage in war with Iran. A similar version is expected to be debated in the Senate.

At a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, Trump spent a lengthy part of his speech defending his order to kill Suleimani and rejecting criticism from Democrats who said he overstepped his authority.


Caught in the middle

Iraq has been the main arena for the U.S.-Iranian military confrontation. Its leaders are caught in a bind as Washington and Tehran are also the Baghdad government’s main allies and vie for influence there.

Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday, condemned the U.S.-Iranian military confrontation taking place on Iraqi soil, saying it risked plunging the war-ravaged country and the wider Middle East into deeper conflict.

In a message delivered through a representative speaking at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, Ayatollah Sistani said the series of attacks were a violation of sovereignty and that no foreign powers should be allowed to decide Iraq’s fate.

“The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are a part of the deteriorating situation” in the region, he said.

“The (Iraqi) people have suffered enough from wars…Iraq must govern itself and there must be no role for outsiders in its decision-making,” Sistani added.


Battle to save nuclear deal

Foreign ministers from the European Union’s 28 member-states gathered in Brussels on Friday afternoon for a rare emergency meeting.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said EU states had played an important role in helping calm the situation, and that efforts must continue to prevent Iraq from becoming “the stage for a war between the US and Iran” and to avoid the successes against the “Islamic State” (IS) from being undone.

“Europeans have invested heavily in Iraq, in terms of security policy, but also … with humanitarian aid, stabilization and reconstruction. This must not be lost,” he said.

US President Donald Trump unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and, on Wednesday, vowed to maintain effort to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

He called on other nations to help craft a new nuclear accord with Iran and said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) must become more involved in the Middle East.

On Monday, Iran announced it would no longer abide by the limits of the deal, placing European powers in a difficult situation.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio on Friday that if Iran continues to violate the deal, Tehran could create a nuclear weapon within “one or two years.”

Germany, France, the UK and the European Union have threatened to invoke the pact’s dispute resolution mechanism over Iran’s violation.

The move would start the clock on a 30-day period to resolve the problem. Should that fail, the issue could then be brought before the UN Security Council and could result in the resumption of economic sanctions that were part of the deal.

German foreign minister said the Iran nuclear deal was still relevant – despite Tehran pledging to ignore uranium enrichment limits – and that EU ministers would reaffirm their commitment to the 2015 pact during Friday’s meeting.

“We believe that this [nuclear] deal makes sense because it binds Iran into not developing any nuclear weapons. So we want this agreement to have a future, but it only has a future if it is adhered to and we expect this from Iran,” he said.

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