2nd assassination attempt by US creates more tension with Iran

Hours before Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed at Baghdad’s airport on Jan. 3, another Iranian military official was targeted in Yemen.

The Washington Post first reported Abdul Reza Shahlai was that figure.

According to U.S. Treasury documents, detailing sanctions against him, Shahlai, “is an Iranian Revolutionary Guard-Quds Force IRGC-QF official who coordinated the plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir, while he was in the United States.”

That plan was to blow up Café Milano, a popular restaurant in the Georgetown area of D.C., in 2011 during a busy lunch period.

Shahlai was also allegedly tasked with carrying out follow-on attacks against other countries’ interests inside the United States and in another country, documents said.

Not long before the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani, Shahlai survived an attack in Yemen.

“We have seen the report of a January 2 airstrike in Yemen, which is long-understood as a safe space for terrorists and other adversaries to the United States. The Department of Defense does not discuss alleged operations in the region,” Pentagon spokeswoman Navy Cdr. Rebecca Rebarich said in a statement.

President Donald Trump’s administration’s narrative regarding the reason for killing Soleimani has evolved in seven days’ time.

The first reason given was Soleimani was plotting an imminent attack. Another reason the Trump administration gave was an attack could have taken place in weeks. An additional reason was Soleimani was planning to attack a U.S. embassy and potentially several — four — U.S. embassies.

Amid questions and requests for details during a White House news briefing on Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said:

“We had specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats included attacks on U.S. embassies. Period. Full stop.”

As more details emerge about what happened in the hours before Soleimani’s assassination, the possibility that Iran will seek further retaliation has risen.

With the alleged assassination attempt on Shahlai, several questions arise, including:

  • Why was the strike on Shahlai not announced as with the strike on Soleimani?
  • Does the U.S. have a campaign of targeted assassinations underway against Iranian military officials?
  • Will Iran stick to its promise to launch proportionate attacks against the U. S.?

WTOP has reached out to the White House for answers, but received only an off-the-record response. When asked for on-the-record reaction, no subsequent responses were received.

If Iran keeps its word, some experts and former officials think it could mean more attacks are coming.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told WTOP:

“The Iran situation isn’t over … the Iranians have a long memory, and they have a target-rich environment to choose from and a variety of tactics, techniques and procedures to draw on.”

Trump and his aides said the U.S. is willing to negotiate with Iran. With no official U.S. diplomatic connection with Iran, that could be difficult.

The government of Switzerland is the U.S. protecting power in Iran. A protecting power is a country that represents another in a country where it lacks its own diplomatic representation.

Caught in between the tension between the U.S. and Iran, the Swiss government confirmed it is playing a key role as the two sides express their concerns.

“The diplomatic communication channel between US and Iran that is provided by Switzerland in the framework of the protective power mandate continues to operate. Switzerland confirms that several messages were transmitted through this channel.”

Acknowledging there are serious problems to be dealt with, the Swiss government said:

“Switzerland is deeply concerned about the heavy tensions between the U.S. and Iran and the latest cycle of violent confrontations in Iraq.”

Additionally, the Swiss government said they can call on all sides to exercise maximum restraint and to avoid any further escalation.

“Switzerland stands ready to support initiatives of the international community that seek de-escalation in the region.”

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J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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