Iran sends message of belligerence vowing new retaliation against US even as coronavirus crisis deepens
ISTANBUL - Iran is hardening its stance in its confrontation with the United States, seeking further revenge for the killing of one of its top commanders even as the coronavirus threat in the sanctions-hit country developed into a crisis that kills about 150 people every day and infects 50 each hour.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani said Iran would continue to respond to the United States’ assassination of Major-General Qassem Soleimani, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander killed in a US drone strike in Iraq in January.
“The Americans assassinated our great commander. We have responded to that terrorist act and will respond to it,” Rohani said in a televised speech.
Soleimani, leader of the IRGC’s al-Quds Force, was instrumental in implementing Iran’s aggressive strategy in the Middle East through proxies in countries of the region such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The 62-year-old general was regarded as the second-most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The United States launched air strikes in Iraq targeting Iran-backed Shia militia members believed responsible for the rocket attack that killed and wounded US and British troops at a base north of Baghdad.
One US official said strikes targeted Kata’ib Hezbollah weapons facilities in Iraq. The strikes marked a rapid escalation in tensions with Tehran and its proxy groups in Iraq, just two months after Iran carried out a massive ballistic missile attack against US troops at a base in Iraq to revenge the killing of Soleimani.
In a speech marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Rohani highlighted what he viewed as the achievements of the past year, including the missile strikes on US troops in Iraq and the downing of a sophisticated US drone.
The exchanges are signs of a war by proxy between Iran and the United States in the Middle East. Tehran’s efforts to expand its regional influence alarm the United States and its Gulf allies.
Rohani’s belligerent statement indicated that Iran is determined to keep pouring resources into foreign policy adventures at a time its health system is under severe strain because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Iran’s economy has been severely hit by sanctions introduced by US President Donald Trump under a “maximum pressure” campaign after he took the United States out of the nuclear agreement with Tehran two years ago.
The United States imposed new sanctions in mid-March, blacklisting five companies in the United Arab Emirates, three in mainland China, three in Hong Kong and one in South Africa for trade in Iran’s petrochemicals.
Washington argues that its campaign to curb Iran’s nuclear, missile and regional activities does not stop the flow of humanitarian goods but Iran says the sanctions must be lifted to allow the import of medical goods needed to fight coronavirus. Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iranian affairs, said Washington sent a diplomatic note to Tehran offering help with coronavirus but was “quickly rejected.”
Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with more than 1,400 people dead and nearly 20,000 confirmed cases since the virus was first registered in the country on February 19. Almost 150 people died from the coronavirus-induced lung disease on March 19.
Iran’s neighbours are concerned that the Islamic Republic could worsen the coronavirus situation for the region. Approximately 90% of all cases in the Middle East can be traced to Iran, news reports said.
The United Arab Emirates, one of Iran’s foes in the Gulf region, announced it sent medical supplies to the neighbouring country. Two aircraft, which left Abu Dhabi on March 16, contained more than 32 tonnes of supplies, including boxes filled with thousands of pairs of gloves, surgical masks and protective equipment, the UAE Foreign Ministry said in a statement.