Iraq wants foreign troops out after air strike, Trump threatens sanctions
Iraq's parliament called on Jan. 5 for U.S. and other foreign troops to leave as a backlash grows against the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general, and President Donald Trump doubled down on threats to target Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliates.
Deepening a crisis that has heightened fears of a major Middle East conflagration, Iran said it was taking another step back from commitments under a 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers.
Iran's most prominent general, Qassem Soleimani, was killed on Jan. 3 in a U.S. drone strike on his convoy at Baghdad airport, an attack that carried U.S.-Iranian hostilities into uncharted waters.
An Iranian government minister denounced Trump as a "terrorist in a suit" after the U.S. president sent a series of Twitter posts on Saturday threatening to hit 52 Iranian sites, including targets important to Iranian culture, if Tehran attacks Americans or U.S. assets to avenge Soleimani's death.
Talking to reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Washington from Florida on Jan. 5 evening, Trump stood by those comments.
"They're allowed to kill our people. They're allowed to torture and maim our people. They're allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way," he said.
Democratic critics of the Republican president have said Trump was reckless in authorizing the strike, and some said his comments about targeting cultural sites amounted to threats to commit war crimes. Many asked why Soleimani, long seen as a threat by U.S. authorities, had to be killed now.
Republicans in Congress have generally backed Trump's move.
Trump also threatened sanctions against Iraq and said that if U.S. troops were required to leave the country, Iraq's government would have to pay Washington for the cost of a "very extraordinarily expensive" air base there.
He said if Iraq asked U.S. forces to leave on an unfriendly basis, "we will charge them sanctions like they've never seen before ever. It'll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame."
The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution calling for an end to all foreign troop presence, reflecting the fears of many in Iraq that Jan. 3's strike could engulf them in another war between two bigger powers long at odds in Iraq and across the region.
While such resolutions are not binding on the government, this one is likely to be heeded: Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had earlier called on parliament to end foreign troop presence as soon as possible.
Iran and the United States have been competing for clout in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Vote on foreign troops
Before Trump's comments to reporters, a State Department spokeswoman said the United States was waiting for clarification of the legal nature and impact of the resolution, and strongly urged Iraqi leaders to reconsider the importance of the two nations' ongoing economic and security relationship.
Some 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, most in an advisory role.
Abdul Mahdi said that despite the "internal and external difficulties" the country might face, canceling its request for help from U.S.-led coalition military forces "remains best for Iraq on principle and practically."
He said he had been scheduled to meet Soleimani the day he was killed, and that the general had been due to deliver an Iranian response to a message from Saudi Arabia that Abdul Mahdi had earlier passed to Tehran. Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran had been about to "reach a breakthrough over the situation in Iraq and the region", Abdul Mahdi said.
Despite decades of U.S.-Iran enmity, Iranian-backed militia and U.S. troops fought side by side during Iraq's 2014-17 war against ISIL, their common enemy. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in Jan.3's strike.
Jan. 5's parliamentary resolution was passed by overwhelmingly Shi'ite lawmakers, as the special session was boycotted by most Sunni Muslim and Kurdish lawmakers.
One Sunni member of parliament told Reuters both groups feared that kicking out U.S.-led forces would leave Iraq vulnerable to insurgents, undermine security and heighten the power of Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias.
Iran said on Jan. 5 it would further roll back its commitments to a 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers, by enriching uranium without restrictions, but Tehran will continue to cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
State television said Iran would not respect any limits set down in the pact on the country's nuclear work: whether the limit on its number of uranium enrichment centrifuges to its enrichment capacity, the level to which uranium could be enriched, or Iran's nuclear Research and Development activities.
"Iran will continue its nuclear enrichment with no limitations and based on its technical needs," a statement cited by state television said.
Iran has steadily overstepped the deal's limits on its nuclear activities in response to the United States' withdrawal from the accord in 2018 and Washington's reimposition of sanctions that have crippled Iran's oil trade.
Tehran says it can quickly undo those breaches if those sanctions are removed.
Under the nuclear deal, Tehran undertook to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for a lifting of many international sanctions.
The 'E3' group of countries comprising France, Britain, and Germany called on Iran to refrain from any violent action and urged it to go back to respecting arrangements laid out in the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
The three nations also reaffirmed their determination to fight ISIL and called on Iraqi authorities to continue to give the necessary support to the coalition.
It was Trump's withdrawal of the United States from the deal in 2018 and reimposition of sanctions on Iran that touched off a new spiral of tensions after a brief thaw following the accord.
Iran's announcement on abandoning limitations on enriching uranium could be the first step towards the end of a 2015 nuclear deal with six major powers, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Jan. 6.
"We will definitely talk to Iran again. What has been announced is, however, not consistent with the agreement," Maas told Deutschlandfunk radio, adding that German, French and British officials would discuss the situation on Monday.
"(The situation) has not got easier, and this could be the first step to the end of this agreement, which would be a big loss so we will weigh this up very, very responsibly now."
Iran has already breached many of the deal's restrictions on its nuclear activities, including on the purity to which it enriches uranium, its stock of enriched uranium, which models of centrifuge it enriches uranium with and where it enriches uranium.
It has, however, not gone far over the purity allowed - the deal sets a limit of 3.67% and Iran has stayed around 4.5% in recent months, well below the 20% it reached before the deal and the roughly 90% that is weapons-grade.
The deal as a whole was designed to increase the time Iran would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb if it wanted one - the main obstacle to producing a nuclear weapon - from around 2-3 months.
While its breaches initially made little difference to that so-called break-out time, a growing number of advanced centrifuges are coming online, which could have a more significant impact, diplomats say.