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Jens Stoltenberg condemns Iran but stresses drone attack decision was not made by Nato

The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, had said it is imperative that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, but held back from endorsing the US assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad, stressing it was a decision made by the US, and not by either Nato or the coalition against Islamic State.

His intervention came as the EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, also warned Iran that it is imperative that it return to the nuclear deal, remarks that could presage a European decision to abandon the deal if Iran does not recommit itself to its terms.

Stoltenberg was speaking after he said Nato diplomats in Brussels had been briefed by video conference by US state department and Pentagon officials on their rationale for killing Suleimani.


Who was Qassem Suleimani?

Qassem Suleimani, killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad, had become well known among Iranians and was sometimes discussed as a future president. Many considered Suleimani to have been the second most powerful person in Iran, behind supreme leader of Iran Ali Khamenei, but arguably ahead of President Hassan Rouhani. He was commander of the Quds Force, the elite, external wing of the Irans Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the Trump administration designated as a terror organisation in April last year.

He was born in Rabor, a city in eastern Iran, and forced to travel to a neighbouring city at age 13 and work to pay his fathers debts to the government of the Shah. By the time the monarch fell in 1979, Suleimani was committed to the clerical rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and joined the Revolutionary Guards, the paramilitary force established to prevent a coup against the newly declared Islamic Republic.

Within two years, he was sent to the front to fight in the war against the invading Iraqi army. He quickly distinguished himself, especially for daring reconnaissance missions behind Iraqi lines, and the war also gave him his first contact with foreign militias of the kind he would wield to devastating effect in the decades to come.

By the the time the Iraq government fell in 2003, Suleimani was the head of the Quds force and blamed for sponsoring the Shia militias who killed thousands of civilian Iraqis and coalition troops. As fighting raged on Iraqs streets, Suleimani fought a shadow war with the US for leverage over the new Iraqi leadership.

Once described by American commander David Petraeus as a truly evil figure, Suleimani was instrumental in crushing street protests in Iran in 2009. In recent months outbreaks of popular dissent in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran were again putting pressure on the crescent of influence he had spent the past two decades building. Violent crackdowns on the protests in Baghdad were blamed on militias under his influence.

Eighteen months before his death, Suleimani had issued Donald Trump a public warning, wagging his finger and dressed in olive fatigues. You will start the war but we will end it.

Michael Safi

Photograph: Mehdi Ghasemi/AFP

He did not specify whether the US gave any intelligence assessments to back claims made by officials in America that Suleimani was masterminding attacks on US diplomats likely to take place in the weeks or months ahead.

Iranian sources have endorsed Iraqi government claims that Suleimani was in Baghdad last week to personally convey an Iranian message in response to Saudi Arabian calls for a reconciliation process. He was on a peace mission, Iranian diplomats claimed. A similar claim had been made by the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Stoltenberg confirmed that Nato training operations in Iraq were being suspended due to fallout from the US strike on Suleimani, but he said he wanted them to restart as soon as possible.

The Iraqi parliament has called for the removal of US troops from Iraq, but there is less clarity whether coalition forces will be allowed to continue to train the Iraqi army to fight Islamic State.

Stoltenberg stressed: The important thing now is to de-escalate and avoid further increases in tensions on the region.

He added: We are united in condemning Irans support of a variety of different terrorist groups. At the meeting today, allies called for restraint and de-escalation. A new conflict would be in no ones interest. So Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations.

Iran on Sunday responded to the attack by saying it could in future free itself from all the constraints imposed by the nuclear deal signed in 2015, but at the same time said it would continue to allow UN nuclear inspectors from the IAEA to visit Iranian nuclear sites in line with the existing regime. Iran argues that this move, its fifth and final step away from the deal, does not represent a full-scale tearing up of the nuclear deal from which the US withdrew 18 months ago.

Frances foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday that European powers would decide in coming days whether to launch a dispute resolution process that could lead to a reinstatement of United Nations sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the deal.

The repeated violations (by Iran) leave us today asking about the long-term validity of this accord. We are considering launching the dispute mechanism resolution…We will take a decision in the coming days, Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM-TV.

Advocates of the deal point out that Tehran, contrary to expectations on Sunday, did not announce that it would increase its levels of uranium enrichment to 20%. it also did not announce how many new centrifuges it intends to build. But it did give itself complete leeway to break out of any of the commitments within the deal. Iran said it was willing to return to the deal, if sanctions were lifted and benefits previously offered to Tehran in terms of increased trade occurred.


The build-up to Qassem Suleimani’s death

A rocket attack on an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk kills an American contractor and injures US and Iraqi soldiers. The US blames Shia militia group, Kataib Hizbullah (KH)

The US conducts retaliatory airstrikes against five KH bases in Iraq and Syria, saying there had been 11 attacks against Iraqi bases hosting coalition forces in Iraq over the past two months

Protesters storm the US embassy in Baghdad, trapping diplomats inside while chanting Death to America and slogans in support of pro-Iranian militias. At one point they breached the main gate and smashed their way into several reception rooms. The rampage was carried out with the apparent connivance of local Iraqi security forces who allowed protesters inside the highly protected Green Zone

In a drone strike ordered by US president Donald Trump, the US kills Iranian general Qassem Suleimani while he was being transported from from Baghdad airport

Iran has already breached many of the deals restrictions, including on the fissile purity to which it enriches uranium, its overall stock of enriched uranium, the nature of the centrifuges with which it enriches uranium, and where it enriches uranium.

The IAEA said in a statement it would continue with its inspections and continue to provide reports to member states on its findings.

The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif briefed both the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, and the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, about this development. He also complained about the response to the attack on Suleimani. Maas last week said he understood the reasons for the killing, but he criticised Trump for threatening sanctions against Iraq in response to their plan to close American bases in the country.

According to Iranian news agencies, Zarif described the failure to understand the realities of the region as a strategic mistake by Europe. He also attacked their failure to do more to keep the nuclear deal alive.

The remaining European signatories to the deal, France, Germany and the UK, have not yet announced that they are pulling out of the deal, or reimposing European sanctions.

EU foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the state of the deal, and whether European states should abandon it altogether.

Von der Leyen was critical of Tehran, saying: We are deeply concerned by Irans announcement that it will not respect the limit set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action any longer. This announcement comes at a time of severe tensions in the region. From a European viewpoint, it is important for Iran to return to the nuclear deal. We have to convince Iran that its also in its own interest.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/06/nato-chief-holds-back-from-endorsing-us-killing-of-suleimani