Iran Escalates Threats as Anniversary of Soleimani Strike Nears

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A supporter of an Iran-backed militia holds a poster of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
A supporter of an Iran-backed militia holds a poster of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis during a protest by pro-Iranian militiamen and their supporters to condemn the comments by a senior Kurdish government official calling for the ouster of militias from the heavily fortified Green Zonein Basra, Iraq, Oct. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

Iran is ramping up threats of revenge for the January 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, while the U.S. is warning of swift and devastating retaliation to any attack.

The threats, from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and a top commander, come as the first anniversary of the Jan. 3 death of Soleimani in Baghdad approaches, raising tensions in a region where the U.S. has already carried out a precautionary buildup of forces.

Rouhani said President Donald Trump had committed an "unforgivable crime" in ordering the killing of Soleimani, who commanded the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency reported.

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The Iranian president echoed the Dec. 16 speech of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who said Iran had a "definite plan" for revenge against the U.S.

Maj. Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi, commander of Iran's army, said Thursday that Iran was poised with a "hand holding a sword and a sledgehammer" to strike against Soleimani's killers, according to Iran's Tasnim news agency, which has close ties to the IRGC.

Trump's apparent red line for a retaliatory strike is the death of an American in an attack by Iran or its regional proxies.

Following rocket attacks on the U.S. Baghdad Embassy's "Green Zone" Dec. 19, Trump issued a warning in a Twitter post.

"Some friendly health advice to Iran," he wrote. "If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over."

In precautionary moves, the U.S. moved the aircraft carrier Nimitz and its strike group back into the region this month. As of Tuesday, the Nimitz was off the coast of Somalia to safeguard the withdrawal of U.S. troops, according to U.S. Africa Command. On Thursday, however, the Associated Press reported the carrier was leaving the region.

On Wednesday, two U.S. B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew over the Persian Gulf, avoiding Iranian airspace in a 36-hour show-of-force mission from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, U.S. Central Command said. It was the third time in six weeks that U.S. B-52s had flown near Iran.

"We do not seek conflict, but no one should underestimate our ability to defend our forces or to act decisively in response to any attack," Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a statement Wednesday. "The U.S. continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to deter any potential adversary."

One of the main concerns for the U.S. is possible attack by Iran-backed Iraqi militias. The Jan. 3 drone strike at Baghdad's main airport that killed Soleimani also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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