Via Financial Times

The new leader of Iran’s powerful expeditionary force has vowed to expel the US from the Middle East as Tehran ramped up its rhetoric following the assassination of his predecessor Qassem Soleimani.

Crude prices on Monday surpassed $70 a barrel for the first time in more than three months as the US warned of an increased threat to Middle Eastern oil and gas facilities following Soleimani’s death in US air strikes on Friday.

Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani told state television on Monday that Iran would take its revenge by “uprooting the US from the region” and “continuing the work of the martyr Soleimani as robustly as he did”. Asked to promise revenge, he said that “God is the main revenger” and “things will be done” to avenge Soleimani.

Soleimani, who led the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was killed in a series of US air strikes near Baghdad airport on Friday.

US president Donald Trump, who approved Soleimani’s killing, kept up the pressure on Iran by threatening to attack more than 50 targets, including cultural sites in Iran, if Tehran retaliated for the assassination.

In Iran, public mourning for Soleimani continued for a third day. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was moved to tears as he stood over the military commander’s coffin at a ceremony on Monday in central Tehran, a rare show of public grief by the country’s supreme leader.

An image grab from an Iran Press video shows Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (L) weeping as he recites a prayer in front of the coffin of slain Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani duing a funeral procession in the capital Tehran on January 6, 2020. (Photo by - / IRAN PRESS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT - AFP PHOTO / HO / IRAN PRESS" NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS FROM ALTERNATIVE SOURCES, AFP IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DIGITAL ALTERATIONS TO THE PICTURE'S EDITORIAL CONTENT, DATE AND LOCATION WHICH CANNOT BE INDEPENDENTLY VERIFIED - NO RESALE - NO ACCESS ISRAEL MEDIA/PERSIAN LANGUAGE TV STATIONS/ OUTSIDE IRAN/ STRICTLY NI ACCESS BBC PERSIAN/ VOA PERSIAN/ MANOTO-1 TV/ IRAN INTERNATIONAL / (Photo by -/IRAN PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, weeps as he recites a prayer in front of Soleimani’s coffin on Monday © AFP/Getty

State media said several million people attended the Tehran ceremony that is set to conclude when Soleimani is buried in his home town of Kerman on Tuesday. “Our commander has defended us for so many years,” said Shirin, a 42-year-old teacher. “I did not cry for my father’s death as much as I cried for General Soleimani.”

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Brent crude, the international benchmark, rose as high as $70.74 in early trading, before easing to around $69.50 a barrel. Crude last traded briefly above $70 a barrel in September after drone strikes, which the US blamed on Iran, temporarily knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production.

Mr Trump has said the US would impose sanctions on Iraq if Baghdad followed through on a parliamentary vote to expel US troops from the country in retaliation for the American air strikes on its soil that also killed an Iraqi militia leader.

“If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever,” Mr Trump said on Sunday. “It will make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

Mr Trump added that US troops would not leave unless Iraq repaid the costs of an air base amounting to billions of dollars.

Mr Trump has defended the killing and said Soleimani was planning an imminent attack on US targets. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Me Trump said.

On Sunday, Tehran said it would no longer abide by any commitments to the 2015 nuclear accord signed with world powers, pushing the accord even closer to total collapse.

Iran’s decision to end limits on the number of centrifuges used for enrichment raises concern that the country would no longer be restrained in its ability to develop nuclear technology.

The announcement fell short of a total withdrawal from the accord that was agreed by former president Barack Obama but slammed as a terrible deal by Mr Trump.

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Tehran said it would continue its co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog monitoring the agreement. 

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has also said Tehran could reverse steps towards increasing its nuclear activity if the US ended punitive sanctions that have crippled its economy. Iran denies it wants to develop atomic weapons.

Ellie Geranmayeh, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Iran’s decision “could have been far worse, given [the] circumstances”.

The Islamic regime has been steadily increasing its atomic activity since Mr Trump withdrew the US from the accord in 2018 and tightened sanctions on Tehran. It has increased its stockpiles of enriched uranium and stepped up nuclear research and development.

Tehran’s decision to stop abiding by any of the nuclear deal’s commitments will increase fear of a regional arms race and dash any lingering hopes among European powers that the accord could be revived.

“This may initiate a nuclear crisis,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former US state department adviser on Iran who is now at Brookings. “They can’t march to a bomb tomorrow, but this will dramatically change the dynamic and they can reduce the timeline.”

The Iranian announcement will make it harder for European signatories to support the accord. Under the deal, Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear activity in return for the economic benefits of some sanctions being lifted. Since Mr Trump adopted the “maximum pressure” strategy against the Islamic republic, Iran’s oil exports have fallen from about 2.8m barrels a day in May 2019 to fewer than 500,000 bpd.

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Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, revealed that Iraq had been acting as a mediator to defuse tensions between Tehran and Washington, with Mr Trump asking him to convey messages to Iran.

Mr Abdul Mahdi said Soleimani had been in Baghdad as part of those diplomatic efforts, saying the commander had “a message to me from the Iranian side, in response to the Saudi message that we sent to the Iranians”.