Sunday, June 23, 2024

US asks China to tell Iran not to retaliate against Israel

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The US has asked China and other countries, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to urge Tehran not to launch a retaliatory attack on Israel for its air strike on the Iranian consulate in Syria.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken spoke with counterparts, including Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, this week amid mounting concern in Washington of an imminent attack by Iran.

“We have also engaged with European allies and partners over the past few days and urged them as well to send a clear message to Iran: that escalation is not in Iran’s interest, it’s not in the region’s interest and it’s not in the world’s interest,” said state department spokesperson Matt Miller.

Other western and Arab governments have also sought to convince Iran to show restraint, as they grow increasingly concerned that Tehran is preparing to respond directly against Israel, rather than through regional proxies, to avenge the assassination of several Iranian top generals.

Washington has informed allies that Iran’s retaliation could be imminent, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

A second diplomat familiar with the warning added that the US said a direct strike by Iran on Israel was possible — an action that would significantly escalate six months of hostilities in the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would retaliate against any attack on its interests, saying his forces were “prepared” for any external threats to the Jewish state. “Whoever harms us, we will harm them,” he said.

The Biden administration has repeatedly asked China in recent months to use its leverage with Tehran, including to rein in Iran-backed Houthi militias that have attacked ships in the Red Sea. But US officials have privately said they have seen no evidence that China has done anything to apply pressure. 

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock phoned her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian on Thursday to discuss the rapidly worsening security situation.

“Nobody can have any interest in regional escalation,” the German ministry said. “All players in the region are called upon to act responsibly and exercise restraint.”

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock spoke with her Iranian counterpart to discuss the rapidly worsening security situation © Kay Nietfeld/dpa

UK foreign secretary Lord David Cameron said he had made clear to Amirabdollahian that “Iran must not draw the Middle East into a wider conflict”.

“I am deeply concerned about the potential for miscalculation leading to further violence,” Cameron wrote on X.

Amirabdollahian also held phone conversations with his counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar on Wednesday night, with Iran’s foreign ministry saying the consequences of Israel’s attack on the Damascus consulate were among discussions points. He also spoke to his Turkish counterpart on Thursday.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that the attack last week, which killed several of the country’s senior commanders, was equivalent to an attack on Iranian territory, and that Israel must be “punished”.

Amirabdollahian echoed the message to his German counterpart, stressing Iran’s right to “legitimate defence” against an “aggressor” that flouted international law, according to the Iran’s foreign ministry.

The ministry said Amirabdollahian told Cameron that Iran never favoured escalation, but that Israel’s targeting of its Damascus consulate and the US and UK’s “silence” was what encouraged Netanyahu’s “warmongering” behaviour and inflamed regional tensions.

The strike on the consulate, which killed one of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ most senior figures in Lebanon and Syria, was a significant escalation of the hostilities that have engulfed the Middle East since the war between Hamas and Israel erupted in October.

Khamenei’s language, particularly in likening the attack to a breach of Iran’s sovereignty, has raised concerns any retaliation will potentially be directly against Israel, rather than channelled through Iran’s proxies in the region.

Responding to Khamenei’s statement, US President Joe Biden stressed his “ironclad” support for Israel, pointedly saying the US would do “all we can” to protect the security of its ally.

“Our commitment to Israel’s security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad,” he said after a meeting with Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida. “Let me say it again: ironclad.”

A senior US official said Iran had delivered a message to Washington after the Damascus strike. In response, Washington warned Tehran “to not use the strike as a pretext to further escalate in the region or attack US facilities or personnel”.

Over the past six months, Israel has exchanged cross-border fire with Iran-backed militant groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, while Yemeni militants have launched attacks on Red Sea shipping.

On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed three sons and three grandchildren of Hamas’s political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, in an air strike in Gaza. Meanwhile, a Lebanese man accused by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control of funnelling Iranian money to Hamas was found dead in a town near Beirut.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack on the consulate in Damascus, which was widely seen as the most serious blow to the Iranian military since the US assassination of top military leader Qassem Soleimani in 2020.

However, Iran, Syria and Hizbollah — the Tehran-backed militia that dominates southern Lebanon — have all blamed Israel, and Iranian officials have repeatedly said there will be a response.

The Iranian state news agency IRNA wrote on Wednesday that “the time is ripe to punish Israel”. It claimed a final decision on how to respond to Israel had been made, adding that a failure to respond would undermine Iran’s “deterrence”.

The Tasnim news agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guards, also wrote that Iran’s “punishment” for Israel was inevitable and would be “heavy”.

But it said how and when Iran would act was confidential and that reports suggesting that Tehran would respond over the next few days or was planning a missile and drone strike were only speculation.

Israeli analysts have said an Iranian attack could range from a strike via one of Iran’s proxies, such as Hizbollah, to a direct attack on Israel from Iran itself, which could risk an escalation of the regional conflict.

An Iranian official said last week that Israeli embassies were “no longer safe”, sparking speculation that they could be a potential target.

Additional reporting by Sam Jones in Berlin

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