Iran said it is abandoning the limitations of its 2015 nuclear deal, while Iraq’s parliament voted to demand the withdrawal of all U.S. military forces in the country, in significant responses to a U.S. assassination of an Iranian general.
Iran’s announcement means that the country will end the final limits on its nuclear program, allowing it to enrich uranium without restrictions. However, it will continue to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and won’t expel the inspectors who monitor its nuclear program.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners filled the streets of two Iranian cities on Sunday as the remains of Iran’s military commander, General Qassem Soleimani, were returned to the country. The second-most-powerful Iranian official was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Friday.
Tensions and tough rhetoric continued to escalate on the weekend, with U.S. President Donald Trump saying that the United States had a list of 52 potential Iranian target sites – including cultural sites – if Iran launches an attack in retaliation for the U.S. assassination.
Any U.S. attacks on Iranian cultural sites would be a war crime, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded in a tweet. Iranian Information Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said Mr. Trump was “a terrorist in a suit.”
Mr. Trump said on Sunday that cultural sites were fair game. “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way,” Mr. Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One as he returned to Washington from Florida.
The fallout from the U.S. assassination was spilling across the Middle East on Sunday. Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah, Iran’s powerful proxy in Lebanon, vowed retaliation against U.S. targets. He used a television appearance to say that the assassination of Gen. Soleimani had allowed the Iranian commander to achieve his goal by “dying as a martyr.”
Lebanon’s neighbour, Israel, was among several U.S. allies in the region that were bracing for potential retaliatory attacks after the assassination. Israel’s security cabinet is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting on Monday and Israeli defence forces are on high alert.
Most Israeli politicians and security analysts said the assassination of the Iranian commander would weaken the Iranian threat to Israel, but they acknowledged that the situation was volatile and could trigger a missile attack on Israel by Iran or one of its proxies in the region. A former chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaei, warned on Sunday that the Israeli city of Haifa and Israeli military centres will be “included in the retaliation” for the assassination.
Iran’s National Security Council, after an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss nuclear policy after Gen. Soleimani’s assassination, decided to take a further step away from its 2015 agreement with six world powers. The deal had required it to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of most international sanctions, but Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement in 2018 and imposed new sanctions on Iran.
“Iran will continue its nuclear enrichment with no restrictions,” an Iranian government statement said on Sunday after the meeting.
The statement said, however, that Iran can quickly reverse these steps if the U.S. sanctions are removed. And nuclear experts noted that Iran was not escalating its program as rapidly as some observers had feared. There had been worries that Iran would announce plans to enrich uranium to 20-per-cent purity – far above the limits in the nuclear agreement, and similar to the levels that it was achieving before the deal – but the statement on Sunday contained no such numbers.
In Iraq, meanwhile, parliament voted 170-0 to require the government to terminate the long-standing U.S. military presence in Iraq – a presence that dates back to the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003.
There are currently an estimated 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq. Their withdrawal would be a major victory for Iran, making it much easier for Tehran to expand its already substantial influence in Iraq.
Pro-Iranian factions in Iraq had pushed hard for the parliamentary vote in response to the U.S. assassination of Gen. Soleimani, but some of the country’s 328 parliamentarians – including Kurds and Sunnis who support the U.S. troop presence – did not vote on the issue on Sunday.
The parliamentary decision, which is not final until it is signed by Iraq’s prime minister, does not contain any specific timetable or deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal.
It is unclear whether Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, serving in a caretaker capacity after resigning in November, has the legal authority to sign the parliamentary resolution. But the move had strong symbolic and political importance, even if it doesn’t force an immediate withdrawal by the U.S. soldiers.
Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, in his own speech to parliament, called for “urgent measures” to force the withdrawal of the U.S. troops and all other foreign forces in the country. “Confidence has been shaken between Iraq and the United States,” he said.
The U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq and Syria, meanwhile, said it was suspending its training mission in the two countries as it braces for further attacks from Iran-backed militia forces.
The coalition had been training local forces to fight against the Islamic State terrorist group, but now it will focus instead on protecting its bases from attack, its commanders said on Sunday. It had already been subjected to repeated attacks over the past two months, including one that killed a U.S. contractor in late December.
In separate incidents that were suspected of being retaliation for the U.S. assassination, rocket attacks on Saturday and Sunday struck Baghdad’s Green Zone, which contains the U.S. embassy and an air base with U.S. troops. No American casualties were reported.
Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, used his long, rambling speech from a secret location within Lebanon to call the assassination of Gen. Soleimani an “open and brazen crime” that will start a “new war of a new type” in the Middle East.
“When the coffins of American soldiers and officers begin to be transported … to the United States, Trump and his administration will realize that they have really lost the region and will lose the elections,” he said, referring to the 2020 U.S. presidential vote.
He added that “the suicide attackers who forced Americans to leave from our region in the past are still there and their numbers have increased.”
But he did not call on his supporters to specifically attack American targets in Lebanon and said that U.S. civilians in the region “should not be touched.”
He made his comments as thousands of Hezbollah supporters headed to Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, for a memorial service for Gen. Soleimani. At times, they chanted “death to America” in unison.
Mr. Nasrallah has led Hezbollah (Party of God) since 1992. It and Amal, its Shia political partner, are a major force in the Lebanese parliament. Hezbollah is a fierce opponent of Israel and its fighters played an important role in Israel’s decision to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Israel and the European Union, among others, but not by Russia and China.
Many Lebanese do not expect Mr. Nasrallah to go after American targets in Lebanon, such as the U.S. embassy. They believe American military personnel in Iraq are the most vulnerable.
“Hezbollah can act anywhere, but they will not risk acting inside Lebanon,” said Tarek Ammar, an organizer of the Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City) political group that has encouraged the mass, anti-government street protests that have gripped Beirut and other cities in Lebanon since mid-October. “The Lebanese will not pay the price for the death of an Iranian general.”
With a report from the Associated Press