Qasem Soleimani: nearly a hundred killed going to his tomb

Threats mask timid actions

Yassamine Mather says that neither the US nor Iran want an all-out war, but after the assassination of Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut and the bomb attacks on Qasem Soleimani’s admirers, tensions are reaching breaking-point

Foreign secretary David Cameron announced officially that, in a December 31 call with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, he made it abundantly clear that Iran shared responsibility for preventing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, given their long-standing support. Innocent lives and the global economy are at risk, he warned.

The US claims that there have been some 100 Houthi attacks on shipping in just the last month. Joe Biden too wants to blame Iran. He sent yet another threatening message to Iran’s rulers, this time via Saudi Arabia: control your proxies or face the consequences - presumably a threat of a US ‘shock and awe’ punishment strike.

Yet the Islamic Republic has tried, especially over the last few months, to maintain a difficult balancing act - restraining its so-called proxies in the region, while, for appearances sake, maintaining a suitable level of anti-Zionist rhetoric against Israel. The supreme leader’s pronouncements have reflected the diverse and at times contradictory positions within the ruling circles. I shall try to explain.

To begin, a reminder of where we are at. In the immediate aftermath of October 7, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted telling Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, on his visit to Tehran, that Iran was not aware of their plan and therefore cannot be expected to support them in the current Israel-Gaza war. Understandably, this was considered a poor excuse by very many Palestinians. They had expected a lot more from the much vaunted ‘axis of resistance’: Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. To add insult to injury, Iranian president Raisi attended the summit held in Riyadh on November 11: Iran’s position turned out to be exactly the same as the conservative Arab monarchies. In terms of global politics, there were no differences between Iran and its new friend MBS in Saudi Arabia.

However, as the death toll began rising in Gaza, reaching tens of thousands, pressure has increased on all Arab and Muslim countries to do something to stop Israel’s ethnic cleansing and potential genocide.

Hitting ships

There have been some low level tit for tat exchanges by Hezbollah on the border with Israel; unverified claims by the pro-Iranian Islamic Resistance group in Iraq, which boasts that on December 29 it rocketed Israel’s southernmost town of Eilat, on the Red Sea; and, more effectively, by the Houthis, who have succeeded in hitting ships heading for the Suez canal. Many companies have rerouted cargoes via the Cape and thereby added to final consumer prices.

US hopes of forming an international coalition to respond to Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping seems to be flailing. In late December the US established Operation Prosperity Guardian. However, many US allies do not want to come on board. Italy and Spain have, for example, publicly distanced themselves from the venture. It is also clear that the Houthis are unlikely to stop their Red Sea attacks, despite recent missile intercepts and the sinking of three of their boats.

The US administration has been keen to avoid an all-out war between Iran and Israel. That is why - in support of its key Middle Eastern ally, the Zionist state in Israel - the US has taken up the task of ‘revenge’ attacks against Iranian or pro-Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq. However, by all accounts the killing of Iranian commander Razi Moussavi in Syria, on December 25, was an Israeli assassination job. Moussavi was described by Tehran as “one of the most experienced advisers” of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

According to Iran’s ambassador in Damascus, Hossein Akbari, the general’s house was targeted “at 4:20pm (13:20 GMT) by three missiles ... The building was destroyed and Moussavi’s body was later found in the yard.” Hezbollah issued a statement: “We consider this assassination a flagrant attack that crosses the limits” adding that Moussavi had supported the organisation for decades.

This was followed on January 2 by a drone strike on the Mashrifiyah area in the Dahiyeh district of Beirut, killing Saleh Arouri, a leading member of the political wing of Hamas. The area also houses Hezbollah offices and a number of apartments and cars close to Arouri’s residence were destroyed: indicating multiple drone strikes.

Now we have the killing of at least 95 people in two bomb explosions near the tomb of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on the fourth anniversary of his assassination by the US. Scores of others were injured in the January 3 attack which hit a procession near the Saheb al-Zaman mosque in the city of Kerman. Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed the “terrorist attack” would be met with a “harsh response”.

However, who carried out this horror remains unknown. There are no claims from any groups for what is believed to have been the deadliest such attack in Iran in 42 years.

Although the threat of escalation between Hezbollah and Israel and potentially Iran and Israel has increased, there is still no sign that Iran or Hezbollah will start an all-out war with Israel. In some ways this is a reflection of major differences inside Iran on how to deal with the ongoing horror in Gaza.

Ultra-conservative sections of the Iranian clergy around major Shia seminaries have advocated a much harder line vis-a-vis Israel. But contrary to western and Israeli propaganda, Iran’s official position has always been ambiguous. Until recently Iran has advocated a referendum in which the “original people” of Palestine - whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim - decide what government should run their country. However, in more recent statements, ayatollah Khamenei has not mentioned this position; instead he emphasises that Iran does not seek “the destruction of the state of Israel”.

True, ultra-conservative clerics in Qom have frothed and fulminated. For example grand ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani stated on October 21: “It is necessary to go as far as the complete elimination of the brutal Israeli regime.” Another hardline cleric, ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, addressing a small government-sponsored Palestine demonstration, reiterated that Israel “will certainly be destroyed. His seminary would stand by the Palestinians until the “full liberation of Quds [Jerusalem] and the formation of a Palestinian state.”

All this is in complete contradiction to the pragmatic position of the supreme leader and the Raisi government, who are painfully aware of the risks facing Iran, should it advocate the destruction of the state of Israel or indeed start a diversionary war to relieve the besieged Gazan Palestinians.

Those advocating ‘war until Qods is free’, do not deny the apocalyptic consequences. However they claim to believe that, some time before the reappearance of the ‘12th and final Shia Imam’ (Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is said by Shias to be currently alive, and hidden in the so-called ‘major occultation’ before he brings justice to the world), an army will be raised in Iran that will take control of Jerusalem. According to these ‘believers’, after their army retakes the city, “the 12th Imam will reappear”.


There are clerics in Iran who have argued over the last few years that ayatollah Khamenei is the legendary liberator of Jerusalem. Fortunately not many people, even amongst the power elite, share such crazed views. However, such marginalia is often picked up by Zionists and those who want a war with Iran.

Although ayatollah Khamenei has at times tried to distance himself from these ultras, his latest pronouncement, made on January 2 at one of the many gatherings marking the anniversary of the US assassination of Soleimani - he met his widow and daughters - has rung alarm bells. Khamenei referred to a strange vision whereby he purportedly heard the voice of god. Of course if god is talking directly to Khamenei, he is on a par with the prophets. Someone should remind our supreme leader that the last Iranian dictator to make such a claim was the shah … and he ended up dying in exile.

On the other wing of the Islamic Republic’s many factions, the reformists have often advocated the ‘two-state solution’ in Israel-Palestine and there are now reliable reports from Qom and other seminaries that some younger Iranian clerics are doing the same. Of course, such a solution is completely unrealisable, but Iran’s close relations with China and Russia, and not forgetting its renewed relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, push it in that direction diplomatically. Following Raisi’s recent trip to Moscow, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian claimed that Iran and Russia were working on “an initiative” - widely assumed to be a variation of the so-called two-state solution.

No doubt Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies, both amongst Trumpite US Republicans, but also warmongering Democrats, are looking for any excuse to expand the current war in Gaza to an all-out blitzkrieg against Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. In this context the cautious approach of Iran’s rulers reveals their well-founded fears.

Meanwhile, in the opening days of 2024, Egyptian football fans, in their tens of thousands, showed their solidarity with Palestine, chanting: “we will fight and die with you”. We have also witnessed a new round of mass protests in Amman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Bagdad. Yet the current situation in Iran is quite the reverse. There has not been a single major protest in any city in support of the Palestinians. For that we can and should blame the empty posturing of the theocratic regime.