China calls for calm after top Iranian military leader killed in US air strike

Wendy Wu

Beijing called on all sides, especially Washington, to exercise restraint as tensions rise in the Middle East, with Iran vowing harsh revenge after its top military commander was killed in a US air strike on Friday.

The escalating tension between Iran and the United States was likely to bring Tehran, Beijing and Moscow closer as all three had disputes with Washington, observers said, but China would have limited scope as a mediator.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that Beijing was “highly concerned” about the growing tensions in the Middle East, and that it opposed the use of force in international relations.

“China advocates that all parties should earnestly abide by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and the basic norms of international relations,” Geng said in a press briefing on Friday. “We urge all parties concerned, especially the United States, to keep calm and exercise restraint and avoid a further escalation of tensions.”

His comments came after Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, was killed in a US-launched air strike near Baghdad airport early on Friday.

The air strike was approved by US President Donald Trump, and top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had discussed Trump’s decision to “eliminate Soleimani” with Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi on Friday, and reiterated Washington’s commitment to de-escalation.

Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, was killed in the air strike. Photo: AFP

Iran has been locked in a long conflict with the United States that escalated sharply last week with an attack on the US embassy in Iraq by pro-Iranian militiamen after a US air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

“At the direction of the president, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” it added.

Tehran vowed to retaliate. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani. His death, though bitter, would double the motivation of the resistance against the United States and Israel, he said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denounced the attack in a Twitter post, calling it an “act of international terrorism” that was “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation”.

Relations between Iran and the US have deteriorated since the Trump administration withdrew from a 2015 nuclear pact agreed between Iran and five other nations – which the US president described as a “horrible one-sided deal” – and imposed sanctions on Tehran.

Observers said Soleimani’s killing had “ignited a fire” in the Middle East and could lead to a serious military conflict between Iran, or pro-Iranian forces, and the US in Iraq, with other countries potentially dragged in.

Li Shaoxian, head of the China-Arab research institute at Ningxia University, said the situation in the Middle East would be “very tense” in 2020, citing the escalation of US-Iranian tensions, Syrian pro-government military action to regain control of rebel-held Idlib province, the civil war in Libya, where Turkey was also involved, and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“The crises across the Middle East will see cards being laid on the table by all sides,” Li said. “Standing behind this is the United States’ Middle East policy and the power play between the US and Iran.”

Meanwhile, Iran is edging closer to China and Russia as its economy is hit hard by US sanctions. The three countries wrapped up their first four-day joint naval drill on Monday in the northern Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Zarif visited Beijing – his fourth trip to China in 2019. His Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, said during their talks that Beijing and Tehran should stand together against “unilateralism and bullying”.

Hua Liming, a former Chinese ambassador to Iran, warned of the “grave consequences” of a military conflict between the US and Iran. He also said that given the frictions between Beijing and Washington, China would have little room to take a mediator role as it did when the 2015 nuclear deal was being negotiated.

“The Middle East is not among China’s diplomatic priorities, and China has a policy of not interfering [in other countries’ affairs],” Hua said. “So [Beijing] will call on both sides to be restrained and avoid a military conflict.”

Moscow has also weighed in, saying the US attack would fuel tensions across the Middle East.

“The killing of Soleimani … was an adventurist step that will increase tensions throughout the region,” news agencies Ria Novosti and TASS quoted the foreign ministry as saying.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the killings as a violation of the conditions of the US military presence in Iraq and an act of aggression that breached Iraq’s sovereignty and would lead to war. “The assassination of an Iraqi military commander who holds an official position is considered aggression on Iraq … and the liquidation of leading Iraqi figures or those from a brotherly country on Iraqi soil is a massive breach of sovereignty,” Abdul Mahdi said.

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The US air strike came after a New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the US embassy in Baghdad. The two-day attack, which ended on Wednesday, prompted Trump to order the deployment of about 750 US soldiers to the Middle East.

Phillip Smyth, a US-based specialist in Shiite armed groups, said the strike would have “bigger” ramifications than the 2011 US operation that killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and the 2019 American raid that killed Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“In terms of a decapitation strike, what just happened is the most major decapitation strike that the US has ever pulled off,” Smyth said. “There is no comparison.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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