WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. officials are bracing for Iran to respond to the killing of its most powerful general, noting heightened military readiness in the country and preparing for a possible “tit-for-tat” attempt on the life of an American military commander.
President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 2 strike against Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, after the death of an American contractor in Iraq. Now, as the massive demonstrations of Iran’s public mourning period for Soleimani come to a close, officials believe the next steps by America’s longtime foe will determine the ultimate course of the latest crisis.
The U.S. is continuing to reinforce its positions in the region, including repositioning some forces, while military leaders are evaluating whether Iran’s latest military moves are designed to bolster Tehran’s defenses or prepare for an offensive strike. One official said the U.S. anticipated a “major” attack of some type within the next day or two.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said no decision had been made about withdrawing troops from Iraq. Pro-Iranian factions in the Iraqi Parliament have pushed to oust American troops following Soleimani’s killing on Iraqi soil. Esper spoke to reporters after a letter from a U.S. Marine general circulated that seemed to suggest a withdrawal had been ordered in response to a vote by the Iraqi Parliament over the weekend. “There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Esper said.
Soleimani’s death, which has sparked major protests, further nuclear development and new threats of violence, has raised the prospect of a wide and unpredictable conflict in the Middle East and escalated tensions between Iran and the U.S.
Britain’s defense secretary urged Iranian leaders on Tuesday to refrain from retaliating for the death of Soleimani. Ben Wallace appealed for calm even as he told the House of Commons that Iran’s “aggressive behavior” such as hijacking civilian ships “was never going to go unchallenged.” Nonetheless, further conflict is in no one’s interest, he insisted.
“Her Majesty’s Government urges Iran to return to the normal behavior of the country it aspires to be and resist the urge to retaliate.”
The main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn challenged Wallace on whether U.S. actions were legal, describing the attack as an “assassination” that placed British troops and civilians “in danger.”
British forces in the region were on standby to assist if needed, while non-essential personnel had been relocated from Baghdad to Taji.
“As part of prudent planning, a small team has been sent to the region to provide additional situational awareness and contingency planning assistance,” Wallace told lawmakers.
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab traveled to Brussels for meetings with European counterparts about the situation in the Middle East.
The talks are expected to assess the state of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers after Tehran announced Sunday it is withdrawing from further commitments in the agreement.
The diplomatic chess match is also playing out at the United Nations as the U.S. announced that it won’t issue Iran’s foreign minister a visa to travel to the United Nations later this week, contending there was not enough time to process the request.
Mohammed Javad Zarif told “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed the U.N. secretary-general, who in turn relayed the information to Zarif.
A U.S. official said Tuesday the application couldn’t be processed in time for Zarif’s travel although it wasn’t clear if his request had been formally denied. A formal rejection would trigger legal technicalities that could affect future visa applications and could also violate the host country agreement the U.S. has with the U.N.
Under the 1947 agreement between the United States and the United Nations, U.S. federal, state and local authorities “shall not impose any impediments to transit to or from” U.N. headquarters for representatives of U.N. member nations, with few exceptions. And when visas are required by the U.S., the agreement says “they shall be granted without charge and as promptly as possible.”
On the military front, U.S. officials are aware that Iran could try to strike a high-level American leader in a “tit-for-tat” move, potentially a military commander.
One U.S. official said some Iranian ships have spread out, and while the intent isn’t immediately clear, they could move rapidly to attack.
The U.S. military has increased protection of its forces, particularly in Iraq. Officials said a number of the recently deployed soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division had moved into Iraq from Kuwait in order to increase security for Americans there. The U.S. military has stopped all training of Iraqi forces to focus on force protection, officials said.
As of Monday, officials said, there had not been a broadly distributed order or recommendation to increase security at military installations worldwide. Instead, decisions were being left up to the commanders.
The U.S. military’s concern about its vulnerability to Iranian attack in the Persian Gulf region has been at a heightened state since about May, when the administration reported it was getting intelligence indications that Iran was planning attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. The Pentagon sent additional forces to the Gulf at that point, and in July it worked out an arrangement with the government of Saudi Arabia to send U.S. forces to a large base deep in the Saudi desert, in less obvious range of Iranian missiles.
The main hub for American military air operations throughout the Middle East is located at al-Udeid airbase in Qatar — within easy range of Iranian missiles. American forces also are stationed in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The Navy’s 5th Fleet, which operates throughout the region, is based in Bahrain.
The domestic political impacts of the confrontation with Iran are also still unfolding. Democrats prepared largely symbolic resolutions under the War Powers Act to limit the president’s military actions regarding Iran. In a letter to House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the airstrike on Soleimani “provocative and disproportionate” and said it had “endangered our service members, diplomats and others by risking a serious escalation of tensions with Iran.”