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Iran withdraws from nuclear deal limits and threatens retaliation for Soleimani killing

What happened: Iran announced its fifth violation of the JCPOA nuclear deal yesterday amidst the fallout from the assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani.

  • Iran said that it will no longer abide by any of the nuclear limits set out in the 2015 nuclear deal, such as uranium enrichment, the number of advanced centrifuges, the level of enriched uranium stored or research and development. Iran will continue to cooperate with the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, in an apparent move to prevent the UK, Germany and France (E3) from pulling out of the JCPOA agreement.
  • Iran’s nuclear announcement came on the same day that millions of mourners joined the procession in the streets of Ahvaz and Mashhad to show their respect to Soleimani. According to Iranian media, these were the largest in the country since the 1989 funeral for Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Khomeini.
  • Last night, three explosions were reported inside the heavily-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, which includes the US Embassy, Balad Air Base and Iraqi government buildings.
  • The UK gave implicit support for the US assassination of Soleimani with both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab defending US actions yesterday. After speaking to US President Trump, Johnson said that Soleimani “posed a threat to all our interests and was responsible for a pattern of disruptive, destabilising behaviour” in the Middle East, whilst Raab told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that the US had ‘a right to self-defence’ and the UK Government was “sympathetic” to Washington’s situation.
  • Prime Minister Johnson spoke with his French and German counterparts yesterday. The three leaders issued a joint statement that said: “There is now an urgent need for de-escalation. We call on all parties to exercise utmost restraint and responsibility. The current cycle of violence in Iraq must be stopped. We specifically call on Iran to refrain from further violent action or proliferation, and urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA (nuclear deal).”
  • Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, accused European allies of not being “helpful enough” after the assassination. Raab will fly to Washington this week to give reassurances of the UK’s support for the Trump administration and seek to persuade the White House to “de-escalate the situation”.
  • Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has vowed “severe revenge” and declared three days of mourning. Soleimani’s replacement as Iran’s revolutionary guard Quds force commander, General Esmail Ghaani, has vowed to get “rid of America from the region”. Shortly after, Trump accused Iran of “talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets”. He said the US had identified 52 Iranian sites, some “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture”, and warned they would be “HIT VERY FAST AND HARD” if Tehran struck at the US.
  • Under pressure from Iran, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution yesterday calling for the Government to end its support for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition and for the expulsion of all foreign troops from Iraqi soil. In response, the coalition’s commander said that his forces would temporarily cease counter-ISIS missions in order to focus on protecting Iraqi bases and coalition forces from Iranian-backed militias.
  • HMS Montrose and HMS Defender will accompany UK-flagged ships through the Strait of Hormuz.
  • Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah implied Israel was behind the assassination saying: “Israel wanted to assassinate the Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Syria, but it couldn’t or didn’t dare. It turned to the United States, which did it openly … Israel saw Soleimani as the most dangerous man since the state was established, since he encircled the country with missiles.”  He called on Shiite militias to attack US military assets throughout the Middle East — including suicide bombings — and predicted that the Americans will leave the region in “coffins,” taking Israel with them.

Context: Most analysts say this is the most significant assassination to have ever been carried out in the Middle East

  • The assassination followed a period where the US failed to respond to various provocative acts including, the shooting down of an American UAV, several attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and the attack on Saudi Arabian oil installations. The change in policy came after a US red line was crossed after an American contractor was killed by missiles fired from Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and the US embassy compound was stormed by protestors led by Shia militias.
  • Israel media revealed that Israeli forces could have assassinated Soleimani in Damascus in February 2008, when he was with Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s operations officer. Israel assassinated Mughniyah later that evening but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had promised President George W Bush that only Mughniyah would be killed.

Looking ahead: There is much speculation as to what the Iranian military response will be, with analysts anticipating a major attack on US military or diplomatic targets and / or against US interests or allies in the Middle East.

  • Israel is concerned that it could be targeted as part of a revenge attack and it declared a heightened state of alert in all of its representative offices around the world, as well as Jewish and Israeli institutions overseas.
  • Iran is unlikely to react until the end of Soleimani’s funeral. His body will continue to be taken around Iran, later today Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei will hold prayers at Tehran University then onto Qom for a ceremony at Masumeh shrine, ahead of a funeral on Tuesday in his hometown of Kerman. For the first time ever, a red flag was raised above the dome of the Jamkaran Mosque in Qom, symbolising a severe battle to come.
  • Iran’s latest JCPOA announcement was a mix between pushing the boundaries of what the E3 can accept without initiating the dispute resolution (within the agreement) or the collapse of the JCPOA agreement. What will be key going forward is to what extent Iran violates its nuclear limits (i.e 20 per cent enrichment would be a clear red-line) and how much its breakout time (the amount of fissile material needed to create a nuclear bomb) shrinks, as well as how much Iran intends to cooperate with the IAEA.

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