- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2020

President Trump has presented a posture of de-escalation following Iran’s missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq, but Iranian leaders continue to spew threats, with some suggesting the strikes will soon be followed by additional attacks.

A top military official in Tehran said Thursday that the missile strikes Tuesday night were just the beginning of a wider retaliation for the U.S. killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani — an assertion fueling fresh concern that Tehran-backed militias in Iraq elsewhere may be poised to undermine Washington’s de-escalation overture.

Tuesday night’s missile attack “was the start of big operations which will continue in the entire region,” Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Aerospace Force Commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh was quoted as saying in Iranian state media Thursday.

Similar messages were attributed to other Iranian military commanders, including Abdollah Araghi, who said that Iran’s armed forces would “impose harsher revenge on the enemy in the near future,” according to The New York Times, which cited a translated report from Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.

The comments came after state media carried a message Wednesday from Iranian Supreme Leader Seyed Ali Khamenei, who also suggested that Tuesday night’s missile strikes were only a beginning. “For the time being, the Americans have been given a slap, revenge is a different issue,” he said, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency. “Military moves like this are not enough. The Americans’ corruption-stirring presence should come to an end.”

U.S. analysts caution against reading Iran’s state media reports as truth. The Fars report quoting the Iranian supreme leader, for instance, claimed that dozens of U.S. Army personnel were killed in Tuesday night’s missile strike against the Ain Assad air base in western Iraq.

No Americans or Iraqis were killed.

The strike did, however, represent the most direct conventional military assault by Iran on the United States since the 1979 seizing of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

President Trump confirmed Wednesday that there were no U.S. or Iraqi casualties. He also said Iran “appears to be standing down” from a further military confrontation with the United States.

Mr. Trump’s comments came after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had suggested Tehran would not carry out follow-on attacks to Tuesday nights missile strikes. “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures,” Mr. Zarif tweeted. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

But the rhetoric from Iranian military officials Thursday, as well as earlier statements from Tehran-backed proxy operatives, have raised questions about the prospect of impending attacks.

In the lead up to, and immediately after, Iran’s Tuesday night strikes, Iranian state media carried messages from operatives of Tehran-backed militias in Iraq suggesting they are determined to take their own revenge for Soleimani.

A central aspect of Soleimani’s operations was to arm and support the Iraq-based militias, a key operative of which was quoted in Iranian state media as saying retaliation for his death would come not just from the Iranian military, but also from Tehran-backed “resistance” forces throughout the Middle East.

“Response to this assassination as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has said will be decisive and it will be given by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the resistance forces and Hashd al-Shaabi of Iraq,” the operative, Mohammed al-Tabatabai, told the Arabic-language al-Ahd news website, according to Fars.

Hashd al-Shaabi, a Shia Muslim militant group known in English as Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), may be eager to exact revenge, since it’s deputy commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in the U.S. drone strike that hit Soleimani in Baghdad last week.

A report posted by Fars on Wednesday also cited Seyed Hashem al-Heidari — described by the agency as PMF’s “Cultural Chief” — as saying “all options are on the table.”

“All US bases in the region, the US embassy in Baghdad and all their soldiers are within the range of resistance missiles because annihilation of Israel and the US is the price of the blood of martyr Soleimani,” al-Heidari had told a crowd in the central Iranian city of Qom on Tuesday night, according to Fars.

It remains to be seen whether the comments suggest Tehran-backed militias in Iraq are plotting attacks or not. There is speculation the militias are in a state of disarray following the death of the PMF’s deputy commander last week, as well as other recent U.S. strikes that decimated sites held by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia aligned with the PMF.

There are also signs that Iraqi Shia leaders not aligned with Iran are pressuring the PMF to stand down. Iraqi Shia cleric and politician Moqtada al-Sadr called on the militia groups Wednesday not to carry out attacks, according to Reuters.

Prior to Mr. Trump’s de-escalation comments on Wednesday, meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that if there are attacks by Tehran-backed proxies, the United States will respond by striking back directly at Iran.

In an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Pompeo said past U.S. policy has fruitlessly focused on Iranian proxies rather than the regime in Tehran itself.

“Previous administrations had allowed Shia militias to take shots at us, and at best, we responded in theater, trying to challenge and attack everybody who was running around with an AK-47 or a piece of indirect artillery,” Mr. Pompeo said, asserting the Trump administration “made a very different approach” with the strike that killed Soleimani.

“We’ve told the Iranian regime, ‘Enough. You can’t get away with using proxy forces and think your homeland will be safe and secure,’” Mr. Pompeo said. “We’re going to respond against the actual decision-makers, the people who are causing this threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

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