Guards chief: U.S. warships will be destroyed if they threaten Iran in Gulf

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will destroy U.S. warships if its security is threatened in the Gulf, the head of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards told state TV on Thursday, a day after U.S. President Donald Trump warned Tehran over “harassment” of U.S. vessels.

“I have ordered our naval forces to destroy any American terrorist force in the Persian Gulf that threatens security of Iran’s military or non-military ships,” Major General Hossein Salami said. “Security of the Persian Gulf is part of Iran’s strategic priorities.”

Trump said on Wednesday he had instructed the U.S. Navy to fire on any Iranian ships that harass it at sea, but said later he was not changing the military’s rules of engagement.

Earlier this month, the U.S. military said 11 Revolutionary Guards naval vessels from the Guards navy came close to U.S. Navy and coast guard ships in the Gulf, calling the moves “dangerous and provocative”.

Tehran blamed its longtime adversary for the incident. On Thursday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who represents U.S. interests in the country, over the recent tensions between Tehran and Washington.

“I am telling the Americans that we are absolutely determined and serious in defending our national security, our water borders, our shipping safety, and our security forces, and we will respond decisively to any sabotage,” Salami said.

“Americans have experienced our power in the past and must learn from it.”

Tensions between Iran and the United States have escalated since 2018, when Trump withdrew from Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers and reimposed crippling sanctions.

MILITARY SATELLITE

Animosity reached historic heights in early January when top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. Iran retaliated on Jan. 9 by firing missiles at bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were stationed.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested that Trump should focus on saving U.S. service members from the new coronavirus outbreak.

“The U.S. military is hit by over 5,000 #covid19 infections.

…Also, U.S. forces have no business 7,000 miles away from home, provoking our sailors off our OWN Persian Gulf shores,” Zarif tweeted.

Iran’s clerical rulers consider the U.S. military presence in the Middle East a threat to the Islamic Republic’s security.

Stoking antagonism over Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs, Iran’s Guards said on Wednesday they had successfully launched the country’s first military satellite into orbit. The announcement drew protests from Washington.

The U.S. military says the same long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit could allow Tehran to launch longer-range missiles, perhaps someday with nuclear warheads.

Tehran denies U.S. assertions that such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development and says it has never pursued the development of nuclear weapons.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Heinrich, William Maclean)

Successor to slain Iran general faces same fate if he kills Americans – U.S. envoy

By Nafisa Eltahir

DUBAI (Reuters) – The successor to the Iranian commander killed in a U.S. drone strike would suffer the same fate if he followed a similar path by killing Americans, the U.S. special representative for Iran said, according to Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

Washington blamed Qassem Soleimani for masterminding attacks by Iran-aligned militias against U.S. forces in the region. U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 3 drone strike in Iraq after an escalation that began in December with missile strikes that killed an American contractor, which Washington blamed on an Iran-aligned militia in Iraq.

Iran responded to the killing of Soleimani by launching missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan. 8, although no U.S. soldiers were killed.

After Soleimani’s death, Tehran swiftly appointed Esmail Ghaani as the new head of the Quds Force, an elite unit in the Revolutionary Guards that handles actions abroad. Ghaani has pledged to pursue Soleimani’s course.

“If (Esmail) Ghaani follows the same path of killing Americans then he will meet the same fate,” U.S. envoy Brian Hook told the Arabic-language daily Asharq al-Awsat.

He said in the interview in Davos that Trump had long made it clear “that any attack on Americans or American interests would be met with a decisive response.”

“This isn’t a new threat. The president has always said that he will always respond decisively to protect American interests,” Hook said. “I think the Iranian regime understands now that they cannot attack America and get away with it.”

After his appointment, Ghaani said he would “continue in this luminous path” taken by Soleimani and said the goal was to drive U.S. forces out of the region, Iran’s long stated policy.

The Revolutionary Guards aerospace commander said four U.S. military bases in the region were used to deploy aircraft and drones that played a role in the Jan. 3 attack that killed Soleimani, including two bases in Iraq and another in Kuwait.

“Most of the drones” had taken off from Kuwait, Amirali Hajizadeh, who heads the Guards’ aerospace unit, told state television, although he did not say if a drone from Kuwait was ultimately responsible for attack on Soleimani.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have steadily increased since Trump withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 and imposed tough news sanctions that have hammered the Iranian economy.

This month’s military flare-up began in December when rockets fired at U.S. bases in Iraq killed a U.S. contractor. Washington blamed pro-Iran militia and launched air strikes that killed at least 25 fighters. After the militia surrounded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad for two days, Trump ordered the drone strike on Soleimani.

(Reporting by Nafisa Eltahir and Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Michael Perry and Peter Graff)

Iran can take fight beyond its borders, Khamenei says in rare sermon

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – The Revolutionary Guards can take their fight beyond Iran’s borders, the supreme leader said on Friday, responding to the U.S. killing of his country’s most prominent commander and to anti-government unrest at home over the downing of an airliner.

In his first Friday prayers sermon in eight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told thousands of Iranians who chanted “Death to America!” that European powers could not be trusted in Iran’s nuclear standoff with Washington.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been at the heart of a months-long crisis, which briefly erupted in January into tit-for-tat military strikes between Iran and the United States.

“Resistance must continue until the region is completely freed from the enemy’s tyranny,” Khamenei said, demanding that U.S. troops leave neighboring Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Washington’s withdrawal in 2018 from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, led to the latest cycle of hostilities between Washington and Tehran, which have been at odds since the 1979 revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah.

U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the killing in a drone strike on Jan. 3 of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a unit of the Guards responsible for expanding Iran’s influence abroad. He built up regional militias that Washington has blamed for attacks on U.S. forces.

Iran responded with missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan. 8, injuring although not killing U.S. troops.

“The fact that Iran has the power to give such a slap to a world power shows the hand of God,” said Khamenei, in a reference to the strikes, adding that the killing of Soleimani showed Washington’s “terrorist nature”.

The Quds Force “protects oppressed nations across the region,” Khamenei said. “They are fighters without borders.”

In the tense aftermath of Iran’s missile strikes on U.S. targets when Iranian forces expected U.S. reprisals, the Guards’ air defenses shot down a Ukrainian airliner in error, killing all 176 people on board, mostly Iranians or dual nationals.

It took days for the Guards, which answer directly to Khamenei, to admit their mistake, even though a commander said he had told the authorities about the cause the same day. The delay sparked protests across Iran, sometimes meeting a violent crackdown.

‘AMERICAN CLOWNS’

Trump sent tweets in Farsi and English to support the demonstrators, drawing a sharp response from Khamenei.

“These American clowns who lie and say they are with the Iranian people should see who the Iranian people are,” he said in his sermon, telling Iranians to unite and show solidarity by turning out in numbers in a February parliamentary election.

Khamenei called for national unity and said Iran’s “enemies” had tried to use the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 to shift attention from the killing of Soleimani.

Most of those on the flight were Iranians or dual nationals. Canada, Ukraine, Britain, Sweden and Afghanistan, which all had citizens on the flight, have demanded compensation and a thorough investigation into what happened.

Khamenei described the crash as a tragedy, but stopped short of a direct apology although the Guards and other officials have issued profuse apologies since the incident. The supreme leader also called for steps to ensure there was no repeat.

The funeral of Soleimani, long portrayed as a national hero in Iran but seen by the West as a ruthless adversary, had brought huge numbers of Iranian mourners to the streets.

But scenes of mourning for Soleimani were followed by four days of protests over the plane disaster, when demonstrators chanted “Death to Khamenei” and scrawled it on walls. “Clerics get lost,” they shouted, as protests spread to several cities.

To quell the demonstrations, riot police were sent onto the streets in force, lining up outside universities that were a focus for the protests. Video footage online showed protesters were beaten and also recorded gunshots and blood on the streets.

Iran’s police denied firing at protesters and said officers had been ordered to show restraint.

In the bloodiest unrest the country has seen since 1979, Iranian authorities two months ago suppressed protests that erupted over sharp fuel price hikes, which have added to the suffering of ordinary Iranians already hurt by U.S. sanctions.

In reaction to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy, Tehran has gradually scaled back on commitments to the nuclear deal, including lifting limits on its uranium enrichment.

Britain, France and Germany , which have been trying to salvage the pact, have subsequently launched the deal’s s dispute mechanism over Iran’s violations, starting a diplomatic process that could lead to reimposing U.N. sanctions.

“These European countries cannot be trusted. Even their negotiations with Iran are full of deceit,” Khamenei said.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Edmund Blair and Gareth Jones)

Soleimani was Iran’s celebrity soldier, spearhead in Middle East

Soleimani was Iran’s celebrity soldier, spearhead in Middle East
By Babak Dehghanpisheh

(Reuters) – Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the top commander of the elite Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, helped Iran fight proxy wars across the Middle East by inspiring militias on the battlefield and negotiating with political leaders.

His death on Friday in a U.S. air strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport marked the end of a man who was a celebrity at home and closely watched by the United States, Israel and Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon said the strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.

Soleimani was responsible for clandestine overseas operations and was often seen on battlefields guiding Iraqi Shi’ite groups in the war against Islamic State.

He was killed along with top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Both men were seen as heroes in Iran’s fight against its enemies and state television heaped them with praise shortly after their deaths were announced.

The television showed footage of him with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and in war zones in military garb, including as a young high-school graduate commanding a unit in Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s.

After that, he rose rapidly through the ranks of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to become chief of the Quds Force, a post in which he helped Iran form alliances in the Middle East as it came under pressure from U.S. sanctions that have devastated the Islamic Republic’s economy.

The United States designated the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization in 2019, part of a campaign of maximum pressure to force Iran to negotiate on its ballistic missile program and nuclear policy.

Soleimani had a pointed reply: any negotiation with the U.S. would be “complete surrender.”

Soleimani’s Quds Force shored up support for Syrian President Bashir al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militiamen defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Its successes have made Soleimani instrumental to the steady spreading of Iran’s clout in the Middle East, which the United States and Tehran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel have struggled to keep in check.

Khamenei made Soleimani head of the Quds Force in 1998, a position in which he kept a low profile for years while he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad’s government, and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

In the past few years, he has acquired a more public standing, with fighters and commanders in Iraq and Syria posting images on social media of him on the battlefield, his beard and hair always impeccably trimmed.

“WE ARE CLOSE TO YOU”

Soleimani’s growing authority within Iran’s military establishment was apparent in 2019 when Khamenei awarded him the Order of Zolfiqar medal, Iran’s highest military honor. It was the first time any commander had received the medal since the Islamic Republic was established in 1979.

In a statement after Soleimani’s death, Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed him. His death, though bitter, would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, the Iranian leader said.

“Soleimani is … not a man working in an office. He goes to the front to inspect the troops and see the fighting,” a former senior Iraqi official, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview in 2014.

“His chain of command is only the Supreme Leader. He needs money, gets money. Needs munitions, gets munitions. Needs material, gets material,” the former Iraqi official said.

Soleimani was also in charge of intelligence gathering and covert military operations carried out by the Quds Force and in 2018 he publicly challenged U.S. President Donald Trump.

“I’m telling you Mr. Trump the gambler, I’m telling you, know that we are close to you in that place you don’t think we are,” said Soleimani, seen wagging an admonishing finger in a video clip distributed online.

“You will start the war but we will end it,” he said, with a checkered keffiya draped across the shoulders of his olive uniform.

“GETS WHAT HE WANTS”

Softly-spoken, Soleimani came from humble beginnings, born into an agricultural family in the town of Rabor in southeast Iran on March 11, 1957.

At 13, he traveled to the town of Kerman and got a construction job to help his father pay back loans, according to a first person account from Soleimani posted by Defa Press, a site focused on the history of Iran’s eight year war with Iraq.

When the revolution to oust the Shah began in 1978, Soleimani was working for the municipal water department in Kerman and organized demonstrations against the monarch.

He volunteered for the Revolutionary Guards and, after war with Iraq broke out in 1980, quickly rose through the ranks and went on to battle drug smugglers on the border with Afghanistan.

“Soleimani is a great listener. He does not impose himself. But he always gets what he wants,” said another Iraqi official, adding that he can be intimidating.

At the height of the civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite militants in Iraq in 2007, the U.S. military accused the Quds Force of supplying improvised explosive devices to Shi’ite militants which led to the death of many American soldiers.

Soleimani played such a pivotal role in Iraq’s security through various militia groups that General David Petraeus, the overall head of U.S. forces in Iraq at the time, sent messages to him through Iraqi officials, according to diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks.

After a referendum on independence in the Kurdish north in 2017, Soleimani issued a warning to Kurdish leaders which led to a withdrawal of fighters from contested areas and allowed central government forces to reassert their control.

He was arguably even more influential in Syria. His visit to Moscow in the summer of 2015 was the first step in planning for a Russian military intervention that reshaped the Syrian war and forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance in support of Assad.

His activities had made him a repeated target of the U.S. Treasury: Soleimani was sanctioned by the United States for the Quds Force’s support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other armed groups, for his role in Syria’s crackdown against protesters and his alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Soleimani’s success in advancing Iran’s agenda had also put him in the crosshairs of regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Top Saudi intelligence officials looked into the possibility of assassinating Soleimani in 2017, according to a report in the New York Times in 2018. A Saudi government spokesman declined to comment, the Times reported, but Israeli military officials publicly discussed the possibility of targeting him.

(Editing by Michael Georgy, Philippa Fletcher and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Iran, U.S. tension is a “clash of wills”: Guards commander

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Iran's Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri in Ankara, Turkey August 16, 2017. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

GENEVA (Reuters) – The standoff between Iran and the United States is a “clash of wills”, a senior commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards said on Thursday, suggesting any enemy “adventurism” would meet a crushing response, Fars news agency reported.

Tensions have spiked between the two countries after Washington sent more military forces to the Middle East in a show of force against what U.S. officials say are Iranian threats to its troops and interests in the region.

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guards speed boats are seen near the USS John C. Stennis CVN-74 (not pictured) as it makes its way to gulf through strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Phot

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guards speed boats are seen near the USS John C. Stennis CVN-74 (not pictured) as it makes its way to gulf through strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo

“The confrontation and face-off of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the malicious government of America is the arena for a clash of wills,” Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri said.

He pointed to a battle during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war where Iran was victorious and said the outcome could be a message that Iran will have a “hard, crushing and obliterating response” for any enemy “adventurism”.

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

Trump restored U.S. sanctions on Iran last year and tightened them this month, ordering all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil or face sanctions of their own.

Trump wants Iran to come to the negotiating table to reach a new deal with more curbs on its nuclear and missile programs.

Reiterating Iran’s stance, the spokesman for its Supreme National Security Council said on Thursday that “There will not be any negotiations between Iran and America.”

Keyvan Khosravi was also quoted as saying by the state broadcaster that some officials from several countries have visited Iran recently, “mostly representing the United States.”

He did not elaborate, but the foreign minister of Oman, which in the past helped pave the way for negotiations between Iran and the United States, visited Tehran on Monday.

“Without exception, the message of the power and resistance of the Iranian nation was conveyed to them,” he said.

In Berlin, a German diplomatic source told Reuters that Jens Ploetner, a political director in Germany’s Foreign Ministry, was in Tehran on Thursday for meetings with Iranian officials to try to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and cool tensions in the region.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Editing by William Maclean)

Iran designates as terrorists all U.S. troops in Middle East

FILE PHOTO: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a meeting with tribal leaders in Kerbala, Iraq, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani signed a bill into law on Tuesday declaring all U.S. forces in the Middle East terrorists and calling the U.S. government a sponsor of terrorism.

The bill was passed by parliament last week in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s decision this month to designate Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization.

It was not clear what the impact of the new law might be on U.S. forces or their operations.

Rouhani instructed the ministry of intelligence, ministry of foreign affairs, the armed forces, and Iran’s supreme national security council to implement the law, state media reported.

The law specifically labels as a terrorist organization the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The United States has already blacklisted dozens of entities and people for affiliations with the Guards, but until Trump’s decision not the organization as a whole.

Comprising an estimated 125,000-strong military with army, navy and air units, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) also command the Basij, a religious volunteer paramilitary force, and control Iran’s ballistic missile programs. The Guards’ overseas Quds forces have fought Iran’s proxy wars in the region.

The long-tense relations between Tehran and Washington took a turn for the worse last May when Trump pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, reached before he took office, and reimposed sanctions.

Revolutionary Guards commanders have repeatedly said that U.S. bases in the Middle East and U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf are within range of Iranian missiles.

Rouhani said on Tuesday that Iran will continue to export oil despite U.S. sanctions aimed at reducing the country’s crude shipments to zero.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Peter Graff and Frances Kerry)

Iran vows to will keep military forces in Syria despite Israeli threats

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari looks on while attending Friday prayers in Tehran February 10, 2012. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran will keep military forces in Syria, the head of the elite Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday, defying Israeli threats that they might be targeted if they do not leave the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israeli forces would continue to attack Iranians in Syria and warned them “to get out of there fast, because we will continue with our resolute policy”.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

Rebuffing the threats, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Revolutionary Guards top commander, was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency that “the Islamic Republic of Iran will keep all its military and revolutionary advisers and its weapons in Syria.”

Jafari called Netanyahu’s threats “a joke”, and warned that the Israeli government “was playing with (a) lion’s tail.”

“You should be afraid of the day that our precision-guided missiles roar and fall on your head,” he said.

Iran and Russia have both backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a seven-year war against rebels and militants, and have sent thousands of soldiers to the country.

Israel, increasingly concerned that its enemy Iran may establish a long-term military presence in neighboring Syria, says it has carried out more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria in the last two years.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli warplanes carried out an attack on what he called an Iranian arms cache in Syria.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London with additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran confirms missile test in defiance of U.S.

FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – A senior Iranian military commander confirmed that Tehran recently carried out a ballistic missile test to the anger of the United States, the Fars news agency said on Tuesday.

The Revolutionary Guards official’s comment came after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion earlier this month that Iran had test-fired a missile capable of carrying multiple warheads and reaching the Middle East and Europe.

“We will continue our missile tests and this recent action was an important test,” Guards’ airspace division head Amirali Hajizadeh was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.

“The reaction of the Americans shows that this test was very important for them and that’s why they were shouting,” he added, without specifying what type of missile had been tested.

The U.N. Security Council met last week over the test that the United States, Britain and France said flouted U.N. restrictions on Tehran’s military program.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program in May and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. He said the deal was flawed because it did not include curbs on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support for proxies in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran has ruled out negotiations with Washington over its military capabilities, particularly the missile program run by the Guards. It says the program is purely defensive and denies missiles are capable of being tipped with nuclear warheads.

Hajizadeh said Iran holds up to 50 missile tests a year.

“The issue of missiles has never been subject to negotiations and nothing has been approved or ratified about its prohibition for the Islamic Republic of Iran in (U.N.) resolution 2231,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday, according to the Tasnim news agency.

“Our defense doctrine is basically founded upon deterrence.”

Under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran is “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons for up to eight years.

Some states argue the language does not make it obligatory.

Last month, Hajizadeh said U.S. bases in Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and U.S. aircraft carriers in the Gulf were within range of Iranian missiles.

In October, the Revolutionary Guards fired missiles at Islamic State militants in Syria after the Islamist group took responsibility for an attack at a military parade in Iran that killed 25 people, nearly half of them Guards members.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Andrew Cawthorne)

Iran special forces chief tells Trump Tehran will respond to any hostile action

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) stands at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – An Iranian military commander said on Thursday that Donald Trump should address any threats against Tehran directly to him, and mocked the U.S. president as using the language of “nightclubs and gambling halls”.

The comments by Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who heads the Quds Force of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, were the latest salvo in a war of words between the two countries.

“As a soldier, it is my duty to respond to Trump’s threats. If he wants to use the language of threat, he should talk to me, not to the president (Hassan Rouhani),” Soleimani was quoted as saying by the Iranian Young Journalists’ Club.

Soleimani’s message was, in essence, a warning to the United States to stop threatening Iran with war or risk exposing itself to an Iranian response.

“We are near you, where you can’t even imagine…Come. We are ready. If you begin the war, we will end the war,” Tasnim news agency quoted Soleimani as saying.

On Sunday night, Trump said in a tweet directed at Rouhani: “Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious!”

A day earlier, Rouhani had addressed Trump in a speech, saying that hostile U.S. policies could lead to “the mother of all wars”.

Fanning the heightened tensions, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said in a statement on Monday: “President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before.”

Bolton is a proponent of interventionist foreign policy and was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the administration of George W. Bush during the Iraq war.

“You (Trump) threaten us with paying a price like few countries have ever paid. Trump, this is the language of nightclubs and gambling halls,” said Soleimani, who as Quds Force commander is in charge of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas operations.

WAR OF WORDS

Since Trump’s decision in May to withdraw the United States from a 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, Tehran’s clerical establishment has been under increasing U.S. pressure and the prospect of possible sanctions.

Washington aims to force Tehran to end its nuclear program and its support of militant groups in the Middle East, where Iran is involved in proxy wars from Yemen to Syria.

Despite the bellicose rhetoric, there is limited appetite in Washington for a conflict with Iran, not least because of the difficulties the U.S. military faced in Iraq after its 2003 invasion but also because of the impact on the global economy if conflict raised oil prices.

Mounting U.S. economic pressure, a faltering economy, sliding currency and state corruption are rattling Iran’s clerical rulers, but analysts and insiders rule out any chance of a seismic shift in Iran’s political landscape.

“This is a war of words. Neither side want a military confrontation. But of course, if America attacks Iran, our response will be crushing,” a senior Iranian official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Trump suggested on Tuesday that talks with Iran were an option, saying “we’re ready to make a real deal”. But Iran rejected it.

While the United States is pushing countries to cut all imports of Iranian oil from November, Iran has warned of counter-measures and has threatened to block Gulf oil exports if its own exports are halted.

“The Red Sea which was secure is no longer secure today with the presence of American forces,” Soleimani said.

Saudi Arabia said on Thursday it was temporarily halting all oil shipments through the Red Sea shipping lane of Bab al-Mandeb after an attack on two oil tankers by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Angus MacSwan)

Iran promises ‘crushing’ response if U.S. designates Guards a terrorist group

Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2011.

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran promised on Monday to give a “crushing” response if the United States designated its elite Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group.

The pledge came a week before President Donald Trump announces final decision on how he wants to contain Tehran. He is expected on Oct 15 to “decertify” a landmark 2015 international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, a step that by itself stops short of pulling out of the agreement but gives Congress 60 days to decide whether to reimpose sanctions.

Trump is also expected to designate Iran’s most powerful security force, the Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, as he rolls out a broader U.S. strategy on Iran.

“We are hopeful that the United States does not make this strategic mistake,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA at a news conference.

“If they do, Iran’s reaction would be firm, decisive and crushing and the United States should bear all its consequences,” he added.

Individuals and entities associated with the IRGC are already on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, but the organization as a whole is not.

IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said on Sunday “if the news is correct about the stupidity of the American government in considering the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, then the Revolutionary Guards will consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world.”

Jafari also said that additional sanctions would end the chances for future dialogue with the United States and that the Americans would have to move their regional bases outside the 2,000 km (1,250 mile) range of IRGC’s missiles.

 

“MALIGN ACTIVITIES”

The foreign ministry spokesman Qasemi also denied U.S. accusations that Iran had cooperated with North Korea.

In an interview that was aired on Saturday night, Trump accused Iran of “funding North Korea” and “doing things with North Korea that are totally inappropriate”.

Qasemi called the accusations “baseless”.

“Israel and some specific countries are raising these accusations to create Iranophobia.”

In his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September Trump called Iran “a corrupt dictatorship”, and the nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama “an embarrassment”.

The deal, which was also supported by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, saw Iran agree to curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions that had damaged its economy.

The Kremlin said on Monday that any U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal would have “negative consequences.”

Gemran Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Germany was ready to increase pressure on Iran with diplomatic means, but that “we do not want to see this agreement damaged”.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who supports the nuclear deal, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes it, agreed in a phone call on Monday that they need to be “clear-eyed” about the threat Iran poses to the Middle East.

“They agreed that … the international community should continue working together to push back against Iran’s destabilizing regional activity,” May’s spokesman said in a statement.

Despite the nuclear deal, Washington still maintains its own more limited sanctions on Iran over its missile program and over accusations Tehran supports terrorism.

The Trump administration is seeking to put more pressure on the IRGC, especially over recent ballistic missile tests and what Washington has called its “malign activities” across the Middle East.

U.S. sanctions on the IRGC could affect conflicts in Iraq and Syria, where Tehran and Washington both support warring parties that oppose the Islamic State militant group (IS).

The U.S. government imposed sanctions in July on 18 entities and people for supporting the IRGC in developing drones and military equipment. In August, Congress overwhelmingly approved the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” which imposed new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program, as well as sanctions on Russia and North Korea.

 

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow, Andrea Shalal and Michelle Martin in Berlin, William James in London; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Peter Graff)