On the streets of Tehran, giant billboards have been raised to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the United States’ 3 January assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s international expeditionary forces.
“By committing this crime, you created a duty for freedom seekers all over the world,” his successor, General Ismail Qaani, said at a ceremony on Friday marking the drone killing. “There may be some people inside your own home who will punish the criminals.”
In Washington, there is frenzied worry about an Iranian revenge attack, likely carried out in Iraq, and equally frenetic apparent attempts by officials to de-escalate. United States warships and bombers have skirted past Iran in what American officials have described as shows of force against Tehran, while other armadas have been redeployed.
The United States and Iran have ratcheted up their decades-long confrontation to a degree rare in recent history, just 20 days before the administration of Donald Trump is set to leave office, triggering fears of a potential armed conflict.
“Some friendly health advice to Iran,” Mr Trump wrote on Christmas Eve, days after a barrage of rockets presumably fired by pro-Iranian Iraqi militias struck near the US embassy in Baghdad and initiated the latest round of tensions between Tehran and Washington. “If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible.”
Adding to the speculation, Mr Trump cut short his annual New Year’s Eve visit to his Florida resort and rushed back to Washington, followed by Vice President Mike Pence, who cancelled a planned trip to Israel.
In the closing months of 2020, the US dispatched 2,000 more troops and an additional squadron of fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, and flew three long-distance B-52 bomber missions near Iran. Some former and current officials have speculated that the Trump administration has blocked Pentagon briefings for the incoming administration of President-elect Joseph Biden to obscure plans for a major Iran operation.
“These are worrying developments,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Middle East specialist at the Wilson Centre, a Washington think tank. “What the real risk is that each side — because of these heightened tensions — could perceive the other of wanting to take advantage. The Iranian side is not oblivious to the chatter in the US and the concern is that the Trump administration might want to take advantage of his last days and may see Iran as unfinished business.”
On Thursday, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammd Javad Zarif accused the Trump administration of trying to concoct a casus belli for armed conflict. “Intelligence from Iraq [indicates a] plot to FABRICATE pretext for war,” he wrote on Twitter. “Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY and DIRECTLY defend its people, security and vital interests.”
Trump has also cast himself as an “anti-war” populist and avoided direct military confrontations with Iran. But he also ditched a nuclear deal forged with Iran by his predecessor Barack Obama and launched an effort to economically strangle the country. In recent weeks, he reportedly had to be talked down from plans to hit sites that Iran uses to enrich uranium.
Top Iranian officials have said they do not want an armed conflict and have indicated they are open to resetting relations with Washington and returning to the nuclear deal once Mr Biden takes office on 20 January. But the attacks by its allied militias in Iraq on US bases continue; the 20 December barrage in Baghdad was the largest in a decade. Top Iranian officials breathe fire and brimstone about the US.
“People who were involved in this crime and assassination will no longer be safe on the Earth,” judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi said on Friday, vowing that Iran and its partners are “determined to take hard revenge” for the assassination.
“A word to the enemy: do not think that anyone who appears in the guise of an American president as a murderer or a mastermind of a murder is immune from justice,” he said.
The latest round of jabs between Iran and the US began on 20 December but experts are noting that the two countries have been on a collision course since late 2019, when a barrage of rockets struck a base housing US military personnel in Iraq and killed one American military contractor. Suleimani’s killing in a US drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport a week later prompted a ferocious missile attack by Iran on the American-operated Assad base in western Iraq. Scores of military personnel were injured.
That was followed by a months-long spate of sabotage attacks on Iranian nuclear, missile and energy facilities at the alleged hands of the US and Israel, and alleged cyber attacks on the US and Israel by Iran — as well as what experts have described as attempts by Iranians to use social media to exacerbate political tensions in America.
A month ago, operatives likely associated with Israel assassinated Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a scientist described as the father of Iran’s nuclear programme.
The presence of both Iranian-backed militias and American military personnel in Iraq heightens the dangers. The drone strike that killed Suleimani, also eliminated Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of Iraq’s Shia militias. His followers are both eager for revenge and maneuvering to outflank the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is seeking to reduce the militias’ influence and presence.
“There are two competitions going on: one between the Baghdad government headed by Kadhimi and the other pitting Iran and the U.S. in a de facto Iraqi battlefield over power and influence there,” says Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a scholar at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a research institute based in Johannesburg.
Top Revolutionary Guard officials in Tehran may urge allied militias in Iraq or Lebanon to avoid escalating with America or Israel. It remains unclear whether they’ll obey. Experts say that Suleimani’s successor may not have the clout or stature to keep the unruly young commanders in line.
“Ismail Qaani tried to convince the Iraqi militias and Hezbollah not to do anything before Trump leaves, but I am not convinced they are totally under Iran’s control,” said Raz Zimmt, an Iran specialist at Tel Aviv University and the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. “The Revolutionary Guard may have lost part of its control over some of its militias.”
Military and security experts describe the current stalemate between Iran and the US as among the most dangerous dilemmas, when neither side knows what the other is up to and both are keenly watching for signs of escalation. Iraq, stuck in the middle between two squabbling patrons, also watches nervously. On Thursday, it tightened security measures around the high-security zones that encompass the US embassy in central Baghdad and the international airport on the city’s western edge.
“You see each side preparing to deter the other; but each defensive move is viewed as offensive by the other,” said Ms Kaye. “Given this year of intense back and forth and tit for tat. “I wouldn’t say escalation is inevitable, but the situation is dangerous.”