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Iran weighing options before deciding to strike US again

Source tells MEE that without American casualties the strikes on US bases will not be enough to satisfy Iranian public anger
People celebrate after Iran launched missiles at US-led forces in Iraq, in Tehran (Reuters)
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Tehran

Iranian revenge attacks on US targets in response to Qassem Soleimani's killing may not yet be at an end, multiple sources have told Middle East Eye, with Tehran weighing its options over what to do next.

Overnight Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched a salvo of ballistic missiles at two major US air bases in Iraq, the first response since Soleimani's assassination last week.

Hours after the top Iranian general's funeral in his hometown of Kerman, missiles hit sites in Erbil, which serves as the Special Operations and logistics centre for the US military, and Ain al-Assad, the second largest US airbase in Iraq northwest of Baghdad.

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The salvo was launched at 1.20am, the exact time when Soleimani was struck by a US drone in Baghdad airport on Friday, along with the deputy commander of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary force, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, immediately claimed that the Iranian rocket attack was proportionate and “concluded” his country's response to Soleimani's killing.

"Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defence under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting [the] base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials were launched," Zarif tweeted on Wednesday morning.

However, multiple sources familiar with the discussions taking place in Tehran told Middle East Eye that a range of further responses had been prepared and were contingent on the nature of any US response to this morning’s attacks.

MEE further understands that as the missiles were being launched, a four-hour meeting was taking place between the leadership of the IRGC and affiliated Arab groups.

Turning point in US power

As the state-controlled media painted the missile attacks as a major strike against US forces, one source claimed that without American casualties these strikes would not be enough to satisfy public anger in Iran against US President Donald Trump, for what is seen here not only as an assassination but also as an act of war.

Hours before the attack, Major General Hossein Salami, the commander of the IRGC, told streets in Kerman packed with mourners that he would deliver “tough and finishing” revenge for Soleimani’s assassination last week.

“We tell our enemies that we will retaliate but if they take another action we will set ablaze the place that they like and are passionate about,” Salami said.

US bases

The general said that Soleimani’s death marked a turning point in US power in the Gulf and Middle East in general.

"He was beyond the borders and is the architecture of the US failure," Salami said.

"Today, the seeds of hatred for the US have been sown in the hearts of Muslims and no safe point has been left for them [the Americans]," he added.

One government source said that the next four or five days will be critical in deciding whether this round of hostilities - the most serious crisis between Iran and the United States since the US embassy hostage crisis 40 years ago - would wind down or develop.

Whatever happens, the killing of Soleimani is seen here in Tehran as marking a watershed moment in the balance of international forces in the Gulf. 

Iran believes that Soleimani's death will strengthen Tehran - in partnership with Russia and China - in its attempts to build a new security architecture for the Gulf as the US becomes increasingly irrelevant.

China calls US 'saboteurs'

At a conference in Tehran attended by Zarif and the former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai on Tuesday, China’s special Middle East envoy, Zhai Jun, accused the US of conducting themselves like “saboteurs”.

In extraordinary remarks which will be seen in the White House as a cynical attempt by China to take advantage of the latest round of tensions, Zhai Jun told an audience of diplomats and politicians that the US has “adopted a selfish, unilateral Middle East policy which favours the strong and punishes the weak”.

Zhai Jun made a strong call for stability in the region, and in a barely coded attack on Trump’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran, added: “People from outside should play a positive role. They should not play saboteurs.”

Zarif launched a regional security plan for the Gulf in the presence - and with the approval of  - both Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah and a senior Qatari foreign ministry official, Khalid Fahad al-Khater. 

Significantly, the Omani government has historically played a well-respected and creative role as the backchannel between the US and Iran.

'We need a paradigm shift'

At the conference, Zarif unveiled a new element to Iran's Hormuz Peace Initiative - which was first unveiled by President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly last year. 

This was the demand that the peace initiative, which was quickly rejected by Iran's Gulf Arab rivals, will replace the current order.

“We need a paradigm shift,” Zarif said. He said the current order “is premised on the presumption that American arms and war brings security.

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"In my conviction, what can bring security to the vast geography of West Asia and Persian Gulf and can create lasting peace in this region, lies in enhancing inter-regional solidarity, shared understanding and co-operative relations,” said Zarif.

“The ultimate expulsion of the US from West Asia is the doomed fate of Washington’s unbridled exploitation of the tools of war, sanctions and assassination.”

In a direct attack on Saudi Arabia, Zarif said that security can not be obtained from “hurling stones at the neighbour's house”. 

“Now we are standing at an important juncture in the history of the region and the world at large," said Zarif.

"As countries situated around the straits of Hormuz, we - all of us let me underline - should abandon the paradigm of elimination and antagonism premised on the illusion of purchasing security and development from without.”

Hezbollah threat

On Sunday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that the purpose of the "Axis of Resistance" alliance against the United States and Israel would now focus on hastening the withdrawal of US military forces.

He said that “it's the American military who killed them and its them who will pay the price”.

In a speech broadcast in south Beirut, Nasrallah warned that Hezbollah targets would now include “US military bases, soldiers, officers and warships”.

He said that civilians should not be attacked as “touching any civilian would only serve Trump’s policies”.

But he added that once Trump confronted “the coffins of American soldiers and officers” he would realise that he had lost the region.