A top Iranian general has told Iran-backed militias in Iraq to “prepare for proxy war” in the wake of heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S., which accused the militias of moving missiles toward American forces.
Qassem Soleimani, a commander of Iran’s extraterritorial military operations Quds Force, called for a meeting with the militias three weeks ago, but the exact timing of the gathering remains unclear, the Guardian reported Thursday.
“It wasn’t a call to arms, but it wasn’t far off,” a senior intelligence source told the newspaper.
The meeting likely played a role in the Trump administration’s decision this week to pull all non-essential government staff from Iraq. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraqi officials that Iran-backed militias have moved their missiles near to the bases housing Americans.
Other countries soon followed the threat assessment of the U.S., with Britain raising threat levels for its troops in Iraq on Thursday. Both Germany and the Netherlands suspended a training mission in Iraq.
But intelligence collected by the U.S. government appears to also suggest that both Iran and the U.S. may have misread each other as being offensive rather than defensive, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Iran apparently thought the U.S. was planning an attack on Iran, which prompted the regime to prepare for counterstrikes.
At the same time, some within the Trump administration say that the same intelligence also suggests that Iran was planning to strike first. Such intelligence may have formed the basis of Pompeo’s claim during his meeting with the Iraqi top brass.
Iran has recently threatened to pull out of the nuclear deal and resume higher uranium enrichment if no new deal is put in place, while Pompeo told the Iraqi top brass that U.S. intelligence showed Iran-backed militias moved missiles near bases housing American forces.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, on Thursday deemed new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration as “unacceptable” but noted that the country is committed to the nuclear deal.
“We believe that escalation by the United States is unacceptable and uncalled for. We have exercised maximum restraints,” he said during a visit to Japan.
“We believe that escalation by the United States is unacceptable and uncalled for. We have exercised maximum restraints.”
American military experts have also suggested that “Iran or its proxies” damaged four commercial ships off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Sunday. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, accused Tehran of ordering “the terrorist acts” against their oil pipeline, a drone attack that was claimed by Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi rebels.
President Trump denied Tuesday the reports that the administration was planning to send more than 100,000 troops to the region in the wake of heightened tensions in the region, but instead noted that “If we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.