Top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has met with Iran-linked Iraqi militias in Baghdad, telling them to “prepare for proxy war,” according to a report Thursday, amid rapidly rising tensions between the Washington and Tehran.
Soleimani called the militias for a meeting three weeks ago, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on Thursday. It wasn’t immediately clear when the meeting actually took place.
“It wasn’t a call to arms, but it wasn’t far off,” a senior intelligence source said.
The meeting played a part in the US State Department’s decision on Wednesday to order all nonessential government staff to leave Iraq, as Germany and the Netherlands both suspended their military assistance programs in the country.
While Soleimani has regularly met with leaders of Iraqi Shia groups in recent years, this meeting stood out, the source said.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have soared in recent weeks with a war of words between American and Iranian leaderships, allegations of sabotage attacks targeting oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline claimed by Yemen’s Iranian-allied rebels, and the dispatch of US warships and bombers to the region.
Last week, US officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on US forces and interests in the Middle East, but Washington has not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat.
The New York Times reported Thursday that photographs showing Iranian missiles mounted on small boats in the Persian Gulf had led the US to dispatch the warship fleet and bombers to the region.
But the root of the recent spike in Persian Gulf tensions appears to be US President Donald Trump’s decision a year ago to pull the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, embarking on a maximalist sanctions campaign against Tehran to cripple the country’s economy.
Iran’s supreme leader said on Tuesday that “there is not going to be any war” with the United States, but that there will also be no renegotiation of the nuclear deal.
In a speech to state officials, Khamenei said the showdown between the Islamic Republic and the United States was a test of resolve rather than a military encounter.
“This face-off is not military because there is not going to be any war. Neither we nor them [the US] seek war. They know it will not be in their interest,” he said, as quoted on the official Khamenei.ir website.
On Wednesday, however, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps warned Tehran was on the brink of full-on conflict with its enemy.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday in Sochi, Russia: “We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran.”
On Monday, Trump rejected a report saying he was considering sending 120,000 troops to counter Iran, but didn’t rule out deploying “a hell of a lot more” soldiers in the future.
Also on Wednesday, Iran formally dropped the limitations on uranium enrichment and the production of heavy water that were laid down in its landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an official from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced.
The official said the move was in accordance with instructions from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and was part of a recent 60-day Iranian ultimatum for renegotiating the pact, the regime-affiliated Iranian Students News Agency reported.
Trump said Thursday that he hopes mounting tensions with Iran do not spiral into war.
“Hope not,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question about a possible armed conflict with Tehran, ahead of his meeting at the White House with Swiss President Ueli Maurer.
Trump was set to meet with Maurer in an effort to open a communications channel with Iran, CNN reported.