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US, Iran locked in tense standoff on 1-year anniversary of Soleimani killing

American officials fear the Islamic Republic could carry out attacks on date of assassination of its top general

People carry portraits of late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad Airport, in Baghdad on January 2, 2021, at the site of their killing (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)
People carry portraits of late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad Airport, in Baghdad on January 2, 2021, at the site of their killing (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

Iran on Sunday marked one year since the death of General Qassem Soleimani in an American drone strike in Baghdad, amid fears in Washington that Tehran could retaliate for the killing on the anniversary.

US officials have expressed concern that Iran may be planning attacks against US-allied targets in neighboring Iraq or elsewhere in the region to coincide with the date. In recent weeks the US military has taken a range of steps designed to deter Iran, while publicly emphasizing that it is not planning, and has not been instructed, to take unprovoked action against Iran.

US President Donald Trump has warned Iran against any attack, and the US has flown strategic bombers over the Persian Gulf in a show of force meant to deter Iran from attacking American or allied targets in the Middle East. A US nuclear submarine crossed the Strait of Hormuz on Monday.

Iranian officials have issued a stream of threats against the US as the anniversary of Soleimani’s death approached, while accusing Trump of seeking a “pretext” for war.

Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a ceremony on the occasion of the first anniversary of death of former Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani in Tehran, on January 1, 2021. (STR / AFP)

The US killed Soleimani, who oversaw the Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force, and others in the January 3, 2020, strike near Baghdad International Airport. It came after months of incidents raising tensions between the two countries and ultimately saw Iran retaliate with a ballistic missile strike targeting American troops in Iraq.

Iran has also threatened to attack Israel since the assassination of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in late November, in a raid blamed on the Jewish state.

The Israeli military is preparing for the possibility of a strike by Iran-backed militias in Iraq or Yemen, according to a Friday report. The Israel Defense Forces held discussions last week about possible attacks, including missile and drone strikes, from the Iraqi militias and Houthi groups in Yemen, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Further ratcheting up tensions, the UN nuclear watchdog said Friday that Iran intends to produce uranium enriched up to 20 percent purity, well beyond the threshold set by the 2015 Vienna accord and a short jump from weapons-grade material.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks outside the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, August 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed Saturday that Israeli agents were planning to attack American targets in order to instigate an aggressive US reaction against Iran and spark armed conflict, warning Trump to avoid such a “trap.” And he warned that any attack against the Islamic Republic by the US would “backfire badly” on Washington’s “BFFs” (an initialism for “best friends forever”), in an apparent reference to the Jewish state.

“New intelligence from Iraq indicate (sic) that Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans — putting an outgoing Trump in a bind with a fake casus belli,” Zarif tweeted.

Top Iranian authorities, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had previously said that all those involved in Soleimani’s killing would face retribution.

Mourners gather to pay homage to slain Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and other victims of a US attack, in the capital Tehran on January 6, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Days after Soleimani’s killing, Iran launched a volley of missiles at Iraqi bases housing US and other coalition troops, with Trump refraining from any further military response.

The Iranian leadership has called the strikes a “slap” and vowed that “severe revenge” awaits.

CNN on Friday reported disagreements within the Pentagon as to the threat level from Iran. Some officials said the threat was the highest it’s been since Soleimani’s killing, with US forces in the region in real danger of attack, while others insisted this was an exaggeration.

“We do see several planning efforts underway and if even some of them are true and they execute they could kill several Americans,” one military official said.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have soared since 2018, when Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The two sides have twice come to the brink of war since June 2019, especially following the killing of Soleimani, who headed the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

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