Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran on Wednesday. Iran's supreme leader said: 'This region will not tolerate the US presence.'
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: 'This region will not tolerate the US presence' © Iranian Supreme Leader's website/AFP

Iran’s supreme leader said the US must end its “corrupt presence” in the Middle East, hours after launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at American forces in Iraq.

The strikes, targeting two bases where US troops are housed, were Iran’s first military retaliation for the killing of commander Qassem Soleimani and marked another dramatic escalation in the confrontation between Washington and Tehran.

But the military action, which appeared to cause no casualties, seemed to be a calibrated response intended to avoid a full-blown war. The evolution of the conflict will depend heavily on America’s next move.

In his first comments since Soleimani was killed, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran’s missile attack was a “slap” in the face for the US and demanded American forces leave the Middle East for good. “This region will not tolerate the US presence; the nations in the region will not accept that and the governments backed by their people will not accept it,” he said.

He did not make any further military threats against America but dismissed US calls for negotiations as merely “preparation for their presence” in Iran. The supreme leader praised Soleimani for being “brave and thoughtful” and “cautious” in military and political fields. Some observers interpreted this as an invocation of his name to justify Iran not taking further military retaliation against US bases.

The Pentagon said it was working on “initial battle damage assessments” of the twin attacks on the al-Assad base in Iraq’s Anbar province and a facility in Erbil, in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region.

An image grab from footage obtained from the state-run Iran Press news agency on January 8, 2020 allegedly shows rockets launched from the Islamic republic against the US military base in Ein-al Asad in Iraq the prevous night. - Iran fired "more than a dozen" ballistic missiles, against two airbases in Iraq where US and coalition forces are based, the Pentagon said. "At approximately 5.30 pm (2230 GMT) on January 7, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against US military and coalition forces in Iraq," Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. (Photo by - / IRAN PRESS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT - AFP PHOTO / HO / IRAN PRESS NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS FROM ALTERNATIVE SOURCES, AFP IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DIGITAL ALTERATIONS TO THE PICTURE'S EDITORIAL CONTENT, DATE AND LOCATION WHICH CANNOT BE INDEPENDENTLY VERIFIED - NO RESALE - NO ACCESS ISRAEL MEDIA/PERSIAN LANGUAGE TV STATIONS/ OUTSIDE IRAN/ STRICTLY NI ACCESS BBC PERSIAN/ VOA PERSIAN/ MANOTO-1 TV/ IRAN INTERNATIONAL / (Photo by -/IRAN PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)
An image of what Iran said was one of two missile attacks on US forces in Iraq © Iran Press/AFP

A US official told the Financial Times that the military had been able to track the incoming missiles and warn personnel in Iraq. Although the official damage report is not yet available, the official said the only buildings hit at the sprawling al-Assad air base did not contain people, and that the missiles that had targeted the facility in the Kurdistan region landed in an open area. The official added that no one from the anti-Isis coalition of American and foreign forces had been hurt.

The UK said on Wednesday morning that no British nationals had been killed. The Iraqi military also said that no Iraqi soldiers had been affected.

Donald Trump, who had vowed to respond to any Iranian retaliation, said in a tweet that he would make a statement on Wednesday. The US president wrote: “All is well! . . . We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said its forces fired “tens” of surface-to-surface missiles in an operation codenamed Martyr Soleimani. It warned “the great Satan and arrogant US” that any aggressive act will be met with “more painful and more crushing retaliation”. The missiles were launched hours after a four-day funeral for Soleimani ended on Tuesday, drawing millions of mourners. 

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said Tehran launched what he described as “proportionate measures” in self-defence on a base from which “cowardly armed attack[s] against our citizens & senior officials were launched”.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he said on Twitter.

Map of Middle East showing range of Iran's ballistic missiles and locations of two bases in Iraq that were attacked

The Iraqi government said it had received notification from Tehran that Iranian missiles were about to hit American targets in Iraq “at the exact same time” that US officials called to say they had detected missiles in the air. The statement by a spokesperson for the Iraqi prime minister on Wednesday did not condemn the air strikes but pleaded with both sides not to drag Iraq into a regional confrontation.

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the missile strikes looked carefully planned to satisfy the need to retaliate but avoid a sudden descent into a full state-to-state conflict with the US, which Iran would likely loose.

“The response was direct, military and it came from Iran so it checks the immediate requirements of Khamenei and the Iranian regime,” said Mr Hokayem. “But this is probably just the opening salvo . . . at an acceptable cost risk. The real Iranian response will take time to unfold and will probably rely more on proxies than direct military force.”

Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike in Baghdad on Friday, which also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of an Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary group. Iraq, which hosts about 5,000 US troops and myriad Iran-backed militias, was considered the most likely flashpoint in a confrontation between Tehran and Washington.

The Iranian statement on Wednesday warned allies of the US that if they have provided “bases to this terrorist army, and any land which in any way is used as the origin of hostile acts against the Islamic republic will be targeted, too”.

The US is estimated to have more than 50,000 troops in the Middle East at bases across the region, including in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

“We recommend that American people call for the withdrawal of American soldiers and not to let increasing hatred to cost more lives of their soldiers,” the Iranian statement said.

Tehran supports militant groups throughout the region, including Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement, and militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, all of which might respond with their own attacks against US targets or their allies.

Qais al-Khazali, leader of Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Shia militia, said on Wednesday that the Iran-backed militia would seek its own revenge for last week’s US air strikes. “Now is the time for the first Iraqi response,” he said, adding that the action they take “would be no smaller than” the Iranian strikes.

The US Federal Aviation Administration said it was prohibiting US civil aviation operators from flying over Iraq, Iran, and the waters of the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

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