World leaders, U.S. lawmakers eye next steps with Iran, Iraq

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by Alexis Simendinger and Al Weaver

Tehran’s highways were choked with masses of people on Monday in a public outpouring of mourning for a powerful general, Qassem Soleimani, killed by a U.S. drone last week. Amid the torching of American and Israeli flags in Tehran’s streets and a stampede that killed 35 people today in Soleimani’s hometown, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei openly wept, and his countrymen repeated their calls for revenge. 

President Trump remained largely out of sight at the White House, phoning world leaders, conferring with Vice President Pence and his advisers, and turning to Twitter to declare in all caps, “IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!”  

The odds, however, tilted in the other direction, toward Tehran’s rapid return to uranium enrichment and eventual status as a nuclear state following its decision on Sunday to abandon the battered 2015 international nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump assailed and unilaterally exited in 2018 (The Hill). 

In world capitals, leaders on Monday held emergency meetings, dispatched envoys and issued public statements calling on Iran and Iraq to “de-escalate” threats of military action and retaliation voiced in the Middle East and in Washington. An alarmed NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg phoned Defense Secretary Mark Esper as NATO convened an urgent meeting on Monday and U.S. allies worked to navigate through a crisis that poses risks in Iran, Iraq, the broader Middle East and the West. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron issued a joint statement urging “all parties to exercise utmost restraint and responsibility. …We specifically call on Iran to refrain from further violent action or proliferation and urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA.” 

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly advised his security cabinet that Israel was not involved in Soleimani’s killing, adding that “it is a U.S. event and we should stay out of it.” 

At the United Nations in New York, more controversy emerged when the Trump administration reportedly blocked Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif from obtaining a visa to address the U.N. Security Council on Thursday (Foreign Policy). The decision is described as a violation of a 1947 U.N. headquarters agreement requiring Washington to permit foreign officials into the country to conduct United Nations business. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who begins the second session of the 116th Congress today, is juggling a House effort to remove Trump from office at the same time Democrats want to check Trump’s authority to order military attacks against Iran. The House will vote on a resolution this week that would limit the president’s clout against Tehran if conducted in the absence of support from Congress. It’s a legislative effort that will go nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate. 

Nonetheless, senators from both parties are concerned enough about the escalating tensions with Iran and Iraq that they asked to hear directly from administration officials. Expected to be questioned Wednesday afternoon: Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and CIA Director Gina Haspel (Politico). 

Trump’s threats to target Iran’s cultural sites if Tehran retaliates for Soleimani’s killing sparked howls of outrage from international and legal experts (The Hill). Pompeo and senior White House aides have offered assurances that the United States would act lawfully and abide by international treaties, although Trump said on Sunday that “it doesn’t work that way.” Fearing Trump’s mercurial decision making, lawmakers are expected to discuss the controversy with the president’s advisers. 

The killing of Soleimani has added to strains between the United States and its strategic ally, Iraq. Following the Iraqi parliament’s vote on Sunday ordering the expulsion of U.S. and foreign troops, the Trump administration offered a muddle of responses. Pompeo waved off the vote as unsupported by the Iraqi people, while the president lashed out at the government in Baghdad.

On Monday, Esper and Milley described as “a mistake” a letter from the U.S. Command in Baghdad to Iraq saying the United States would withdraw troops and reposition forces in the region. The communication was reported by Reuters and then quickly walked back by Milley as a poorly worded “draft” that “should not have been released” (The Hill). Esper said the United States has no plans to leave Iraq. 

And then the cry of Anguish from The Washington Post: Responding to Trump’s threat, administration officials began drafting potential economic sanctions against Iraq.

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