Tough Talk Between US and Iran Hints at Attack to Avenge General’s Death
The U.S. Defense Department changed course Sunday and sent an aircraft carrier to stand ready off the coast of Iran as tensions escalate with the United States.
The USS Nimitz was heading home last week after a 10-month deployment in the Persian Gulf but was sent back after intelligence reports indicated a possible attack against U.S. facilities in Iraq.
The bigger U.S. military presence follows warnings on Thursday and Friday from top Iranian military commanders. They coincide with the one-year anniversary of the U.S.-backed drone strike that killed an Iranian clandestine operations leader and the upcoming inauguration of a new American president.
On Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that the U.S. government was trying to provoke Iran.
“Instead of fighting Covid in U.S., [President Donald Trump] and cohorts waste billions to fly B52s and send armadas to our region,” Zarif wrote.
He added, “Iran doesn’t seek war but will openly and directly defend its people, security and vital interests.”
The next day, the Iranian government pledged to repel U.S. military threats while making a vague promise of revenge against American officials for the Jan. 3, 2020 assassination of Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite special operations Quds Force. U.S. intelligence officials blamed Soleimani for numerous attacks on American facilities in Iraq.
A message on the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account said, “By committing a craven act of terror against Gen Soleimani, the US violated int’l law & the UN Charter in a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The US’ lawlessness in full show. #Iran won’t rest until bringing those responsible to justice.”
Other tensions were generated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seizing a South Korean merchant ship on Monday for “polluting the Persian Gulf with chemicals.” The South Korean government demanded the immediate release of the ship.
Trump, who approved the drone attack that killed Soleimani, had already added his voice to the escalating tensions in a Dec. 23 tweet that said, “Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over.”
He added, ”We hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq.”
Trump’s tweet was a response to a Dec. 20 Iranian-backed attack in which 20 rockets were launched at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. One civilian was killed while buildings and vehicles in the embassy compound were damaged.
Senior military advisers are warning that Iran appears to be trying to take advantage of apparent weaknesses in U.S. defenses as the nation’s attention and resources are turned toward pandemic relief and a change in presidential administrations.
For what they described as a preventive measure, the Pentagon last week sent B-52 bombers to the Middle East to prepare for possible Iranian attacks.
A Pentagon statement said the heavy bombers were sent to the Middle East “to underscore the U.S. military’s commitment to regional security and demonstrate a unique ability to rapidly deploy overwhelming combat power on short notice.”
President-elect Joe Biden’s newly announced appointments to top Defense Department positions create many questions about how they will respond to Iranian threats. Biden has been critical of President Donald Trump’s approach to the Iranian government, which he has characterized as unpredictable.
Biden wants to revive a 2015 agreement between the United States and other world powers in which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development program in exchange for reducing international sanctions. Trump pulled the United States out of the treaty.
However, the Iranians appear to be uncooperative with Biden’s plan. On Monday, they announced they would enrich uranium up to a 20% purity.
The higher enrichment level exceeds limits imposed by the 2015 agreement.
Iranian government officials insist the uranium would be used only for electrical generation and other peaceful purposes. Senior U.S. military officials say the higher level would make it easy to transfer the enriched uranium into nuclear weapons.
At the same time, Defense Department intelligence officials report a significant flow of weapons from Iran over the border into Iraq in recent weeks. The U.S. government has reduced its staff at its Baghdad embassy in anticipation of an attack.
If the Iranians attack after the Jan. 20 inauguration, the strategy for a counterattack would fall to Lloyd James Austin III, Biden’s choice to lead the Defense Department. He is a retired four-star Army general who previously served as the 12th commander of the U.S. Central Command that oversees military operations in the Middle East and South Asia. He was the Central Command’s first African American commanding officer.
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