Ayatollah Ali Khamenei awards Qasem Soleimani Iran’s highest military honor, the Order of Zolfaqar, on Mar. 10, 2019. (Photo via Office of the Supreme Leader)
The story: Iran says it will continue to pursue anyone involved in the US assassination of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani—regardless of the outcome of efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. This comes as the Joe Biden administration is expected to soon decide on whether to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). Meanwhile, the nuclear negotiations have stalled amid ambiguity over Washington’s preparedness to respond to Tehran’s latest proposal.
The coverage: Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Apr. 18 rejected suggestions that Tehran would abandon its pursuit of those responsible for Soleimani’s death if the IRGC is removed from Washington’s FTO list.
Of note, the Quds Force is the expeditionary wing of the Guard Corps, and American demands that Iran must renounce any retaliation for Soleimani’s death has been among the key remaining sticking points between the two sides.
- Khatibzadeh said in his weekly press briefing that “avenging” Soleimani is “a fundamental principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy.”
- The senior Iranian official described the US killing of Soleimani as a “cowardly assassination” and reiterated that “it will not go unpunished.”
Described by some as the “second most powerful” person in Iran, Soleimani was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport in Jan. 2020.
- Iran responded five days later by launching a volley of missiles at Ain al-Assad, an Iraqi airbase housing US troops.
- Expecting a US response, the IRGC misidentified a Ukrainian passenger plane as a cruise missile and shot it down near Tehran on Jan. 8, 2020, killing all on board.
Speaking on Apr. 18, Khatibzadeh said Tehran and Washington are exchanging messages as part of efforts to salvage the nuclear deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
- The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman refrained from stating whether the US had responded to Iran’s latest proposal, instead insisting that “messages are being sent back and forth via Mr. [Enrique] Mora,” referring to the EU’s deputy foreign policy chief. The senior European official serves as the coordinator of the talks to revive the JCPOA.
- Mora’s shuttle diplomacy saw him travel to Tehran before paying a visit to Washington in late March.
The context/analysis: Over the past year, multiple rounds of talks have been held in Vienna between Iran and the P4+1 (Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) to resurrect the JCPOA, with the US indirectly involved.
- Despite considerable progress, talks temporarily broke off on Mar. 11, but efforts to salvage the deal continue.
- Added to the FTO list by the former Donald Trump administration (2017-21) in Apr. 2019, the IRGC’s blacklisting remains one of the sticking points preventing the revival of the deal.
- Some reports claim that the US wants guarantees from Iran that it will stop seeking vengeance for Soleimani in return for delisting the IRGC.
Iran has sanctioned more than 50 American individuals in connection with Soleimani’s killing, while several commanders have declared that it takes more than killing senior US officials to avenge the slain Quds Force commander.
- The IRGC’s second-in-command Ali Fadavi stated in Dec. 2021 that not even “killing thousands of US presidents” would suffice as revenge for the US assassination. The next month, he declared that “avenging Soleimani is a certainty.”
- Echoing Fadavi, the commander of the IRGC’s Ground Force, Mohammad Pakpour, said on Apr. 13 that “even if all US leaders are killed,” it would not make up for Soleimani’s death. He said Iran will seek “other means” to avenge Soleimani.
- The most ominous threat so far has come from Soleimani’s successor as Quds Force commander, Esmail Qa’ani, who warned on Jan. 6 that Iran may avenge the slain general on US soil.
The Office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published a poster and a video on the first and second anniversaries of Soleimani’s killing, threatening to target former US President Trump for having ordered the strike on Soleimani.
- The US State Department said on Mar. 12 that it was spending more than 2M USD per month to provide 24-hour security to former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and ex-special Iran envoy Brian Hook due to “serious and credible” threats from Tehran.
- Pompeo and Hook were instrumental in pushing for the IRGC’s FTO designation and later defended the decision to kill Soleimani.
The future: Soleimani was a venerated figure among many in Iran and his assassination only enhanced its status.
- Iran is unlikely to cease pursuing those it deems responsible for the killing of the former Quds Force commander.
- On the other hand, Pakpour’s comments may suggest face-saving flexibility ahead geared to secure a revival of the JCPOA. In this context, Iran and its allies may focus on US targets in the region rather than pursuing senior political figures on US soil.