Iran’s former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif

Iran Alerted US Before Soleimani Revenge Strike, Zarif Affirms

Saturday, 03/23/2024

Iran’s former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has confirmed that Tehran informed the US before launching missiles at an Iraqi base housing American forces in January 2020.

The ballistic missile attack came as retaliation days after the United States killed IRGC's Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad. Zarif also claims that he and then-President Hassan Rouhani heard about the missile attack after the Americans were informed through Iraqi officials.

In his new book, Mohammad Javad Zarif explains the buildup to the attack on Ain al-Asad Base in January 8, 2020, codenamed Operation Martyr Soleimani. Ten days after the publication of the book, social media circulated a photo of one of the pages of the memoir that detailed the moment when Zarif was informed of the attack.

“The last decision I heard [after Soleimani's killing] was that there is no rush for a response, and the most efficient method was thought to be the one pursued by Hezbollah in Lebanon, creating condition to exhaust the enemy,” Zarif says in the book, a memoir of the eight years (2013-2021) he served as foreign minister.

He added that he received the message about the missile attack from Abbas Araghchi, another senior Iranian diplomat, hours after Iran had fired over a dozen ballistic missiles at the base. This was the biggest ballistic attack against the US forces in recent history.

“Apparently, Americans were informed of the attack before Iran’s President and Foreign Minister by the Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi,” who had informed them of the operation in the evening, hours before the attack. Reuters reported at the time that Iraq's prime minister had received an oral message from Iran that the retaliatory attack would begin and that it would target locations where American forces were deployed.

At 11 pm on January 7, US Lt. Col. Antoinette Chase, responsible for emergency response at Ain al-Asad Base, gave the order for American troops to go on lockdown and take cover in bunkers. The first missiles landed sometime after 1:35 a.m. on January 8 and the barrage continued for nearly two hours. “Worst case scenario — we were told was it’s probably going to be a missile attack. So we were informed of that,” she told reporters touring the base later.

Zarif commends the “appropriate and correct” decision to give the heads-up to the US before the attack but questions why President Hassan Rouhani and himself were not aware of the attack, laying bare a point of contention in the Islamic Republic’s politics: The Revolutionary Guards do not coordinate their moves with the government.

Iran's coordination with the US regarding the attack suggests that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his IRGC aimed to project strength but were wary of the potential escalation resulting from any American casualties. Nevertheless, Iran was on alert for a possible US retaliatory strike and hours later mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner thinking it was an American aircraft, killing 176 innocent people.

Zarif revealed that he and his team were preparing messages to the security council and other parties to explain the Ain al-Asad attack before he learned of the downing of the Ukrainian plane soon after its takeoff from Tehran.

It is not the first time Zarif talked about Iran’s the circumstances surrounding the killing of Soleimani and Tehran’s coordination for the surprise revenge attack and other developments of that week in January 2020. In a voice recording leaked in March 2021, Zarif could be heard saying that officials knew about the circumstances of the downing soon after it happened, but they had concealed the information from him, and continued to mislead the world about why the airliner had crashed.

Former US president Donald Trump, who ordered the killing of Soleimani, said on several occasions that Iranians informed him that they would hit a military base with ballistic missiles.

On February 5, former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani dismissed claims by Trump that he had received an Iranian message before the attack. However, he chose his words very carefully, saying there were no contacts between the Iranians and Americans before the attack on Ain al-Asad. He was right. The IRGC informed the Iraqi premier, who later relayed the message.

The Iranian attack was the most direct Iranian assault on America since the 1979 seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran. Iran and the United States went to the brink of war three times during the Presidency of Donald Trump, Iran’s former president Rouhani said in January. 

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