Fears of a regional escalation of the 90-day-old war in Gaza are growing, following two explosions in Iran which have killed 95 and injured 188 near the grave of Qassem Soleimani during a ceremony honouring him on the fourth anniversary of his death. Soleimani, one of Iran’s most powerful men, was head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, an elite unit that handles Iran’s overseas operations and was deemed to be a foreign terrorist by the US. He was killed in 2020 at the hands of a US drone strike ordered by then-President Donald Trump.
Politico recalls the grim prediction made last year by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who said that Israel’s counter-offensive in Gaza meant an “expansion of the scope of the war has become inevitable” and that “further escalation across the Middle East should be expected”. However, Reuters reported this morning that Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Israeli army made statements suggesting the two avowed enemies wanted to avoid risking the further spread of war beyond the Gaza Strip after a drone strike killed a Palestinian Hamas deputy Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut on Tuesday. A US official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, suggested neither Hezbollah nor Israel wanted a war. “From everything that we can tell, there is no clear desire for Hezbollah to go to war with Israel and vice versa,” said the official.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will this evening depart for the Middle East. His itinerary includes a stop in Israel, as the United States continues diplomatic consultations on the Israel-Gaza conflict, a senior US official said on Wednesday. The official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said US diplomatic envoy Amos Hochstein will also travel to Israel to work to soothe tensions between Israel and Hezbollah.
In another development, Germany has urged its citizens to quickly leave Lebanon, warning that a military escalation between Israel and Hamas cannot be ruled out following the attack in Beirut that killed Saleh Arouri. “All German citizens still in Lebanon are asked to leave the country as quickly as possible,” the German Foreign Ministry wrote on X. The alarm came after a meeting of the German government’s crisis unit.
Wednesday’s explosions came amid severe tensions between Iran and the US and Israel. Iran’s proxy terrorist groups have attacked US bases in Iraq and Syria more than 100 times since October, and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have harassed trade in the Red Sea. Hezbollah, another Iran-supported group, has threatened Israel’s northern border with drone attacks.
The Iranian authorities revised downward the number of deaths in Kerman to 95 from the previous toll of 103 victims after they realised that some names had been repeated in the list of victims, Iranian Health Minister Bahram Einollahi told state TV. However, many of the injured are in critical condition, so the death toll could rise.
“The blasts were caused by terrorist attacks,” Iranian media quoted a local official as saying, without accusing any specific party. No group has claimed responsibility for the blasts, yet Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi blamed Israel for the explosions, saying it will pay a “heavy price”. In a televised speech from Tehran he said: “I warn the Zionist regime: do not doubt that you will pay a heavy price for this crime and the crimes you have committed”. Raisi, who is the head of the Iranian government, warned that Israel’s punishment will be “regrettable and severe”. Iran declared Thursday a day of mourning following the blasts and Raisi cancelled his upcoming trip to Turkey.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on X that Iran will have a “harsh response”. Addressing those behind the explosions, he wrote: “They should know that the bright soldiers of the path of Soleimani will not tolerate their wickedness and crimes.” Only a few days ago, Khamenei had sworn revenge on Israel after the death of another important Pasdaran general, Reza Moussavi, who died in an attack in Syria on 25th December.
In the long-awaited speech broadcast live on TV from a secret location, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah, said: “If Israel thinks of launching a war against Lebanon, we will fight without limits and without rules”. Nasrallah also referred to the assassination of Hamas’ number two, Saleh Arouri, accusing Israel of committing a “flagrant attack” against the Party of God’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut. “The successes of Hamas from the Gaza Strip are due to the work done for years by Qasem Soleimani,” Nasrallah said.
Both the European Union and United Nations chief António Guterres condemned Wednesday’s blasts and called for the perpetrators to be held responsible. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first international leader to send his condolences to the “friend and brother” Iranian people after the “horrendous terrorist attack”, according to the Turkish news agency Anadolu. Immediately afterwards, Russian President Vladimir Putin messaged: “The killings of civilians while visiting a cemetery are shocking in their cruelty and cynicism… we strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and we reaffirm our commitment to fight without compromised this evil,” reports the Ria Novosti agency. A statement of solidarity from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, addressed to Khamenei, read: “This cowardly move will only strengthen the unity of the Islamic Ummah, the Arabic community, and their faith in the resistance.”
“Qatari silence on Arouri assassination good omen for hostage talks”
A senior Israeli official has told The Times of Israel that the fact that Qatar did not respond publicly to Tuesday night’s strike on Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri is a positive sign for the continuation of talks on the release of more hostages from Gaza. “If they don’t announce anything, that is ultimately something optimistic,” says the official. Israel has remained mum on responsibility for the strike despite widespread speculation that it was behind the killing of the top Hamas official. The Israeli official said that a high-stake meeting in which the National Security Council and the Strategic Affairs Ministry were slated to present recommendations for the day after the war against Hamas, scheduled for Tuesday, was delayed in the wake of the strike on Arouri in the southern suburbs of Beirut. They are expected to be presented this evening instead, and the details of the recommendations will be made public. Officials are expected to discuss the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) after the war.
Israeli-guided missile used to kill Hamas’s Arouri
A high-level Lebanese security official claims Israel fired guided missiles from a warplane to kill Hamas number two Saleh al-Arouri in a Beirut suburb on Tuesday. “Arouri was killed in strikes using guided missiles which were launched by an Israeli warplane,” the official says, requesting anonymity because of security concerns. “A drone could not have carried out such a precise strike,” says the official, with knowledge of the official Lebanese investigation into Arouri’s killing.
Pictures from the scene on Wednesday showed heavy damage to part of a building, with the rest of the structure and neighbouring ones appearing largely unscathed, indicating the precise nature of the strike. According to the official, the guided missiles used in the attack weigh around 100 kilos, making them too heavy to have been fired by a drone. Six missiles were used in Tuesday’s attack, four of which exploded, the official says. Two of the missiles that detonated pierced through two floors and exploded in a room where Arouri was holding a meeting with other Hamas officials, the source adds. A preliminary investigation by the Lebanese army indicated that remnants of the missiles match those used by the Israeli army during cross-border exchanges with Hezbollah and other pro-Iran groups in southern Lebanon.
“IDF, Shin Bet favour Palestinian clans administering Gaza”
Israeli security chiefs are reportedly set to propose a plan by which Palestinian clans in the Gaza Strip will temporarily administer the coastal enclave after the ongoing war to remove Hamas ends, with each clan handling humanitarian aid and resources for their local regions. The Israel Defence Forces and Shin Bet security service want to divide Gaza into regions and sub-regions, with civil administration and the distribution of humanitarian aid in each area entrusted to a local clan, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Only clans that are familiar to Israeli security officials will be entrusted to manage the aid that will enter the war-torn Strip from Egypt and Israel, the report said.
The plan, formulated by the IDF as a stopgap until a more permanent arrangement for Gaza is found, was to be presented to the security cabinet on Tuesday, the report said. However, the meeting was pushed off after Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri was killed. Instead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the two other members of the war cabinet, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Minister Benny Gantz, along with their advisers. The security cabinet meeting on the future of Gaza was rescheduled for last night but no statement has, as yet, been released.
US-led coalition issues warning to Houthis
A US-led coalition of 13 countries issued a warning to Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on Wednesday, vowing consequences should the group continue attacks in the Red Sea. The nations said that the “ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilising. They are a direct threat to the freedom of navigation that serves as the bedrock of global trade in one of the world’s most critical waterways.”
Meanwhile, the United States has called on the UN Security Council to take urgent action against Yemen’s Houthi rebels for attacking ships in the key Red Sea trade route and warned their longtime financier Iran that it has a choice to make about continuing to provide support to the rebels. US deputy ambassador Christopher Lu told an emergency council meeting that the Houthis have carried out more than 20 attacks since 19th November and, despite losing 10 fighters in a confrontation with US forces after trying unsuccessfully to board a cargo ship on Sunday, the rebel group announced on Wednesday morning that it had targeted another container ship.
International Maritime Organisation Secretary-General Arsenio Dominguez told the council that, as a result of the Houthi attacks, around 18 shipping companies have rerouted their vessels around South Africa to avoid the risk of being hit. Some 15 per cent of international trade goes through the vital Red Sea area, he said, and re-routing ships around the Cape of Good Hope represents an additional 10-day journey, negatively impacts global trade, and increases freight rates.
Trump appeals Colorado ballot ban
Former US President Donald Trump on Wednesday asked the Supreme Court to overturn a Colorado court’s landmark ruling disqualifying him from the state’s 2024 Republican primary ballot under the 14th Amendment’s insurrection ban. The appeal likely sets up an extraordinary battle at the nation’s highest court, which has never ruled on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. That clause, added after the Civil War, blocks anyone who swore an oath to “support” the US Constitution but “engaged in insurrection” against it from holding federal office.
“The Colorado Supreme Court has no authority to deny President Trump access to the ballot,” Trump’s attorneys wrote in the petition. “By doing so, the Colorado Supreme Court has usurped Congressional authority and misinterpreted and misapplied the text of section 3.” Any ruling from the US Supreme Court would be the final say on whether Trump is eligible to appear on the primary ballot in Colorado, Maine, and other states where his eligibility is being challenged.
Clinton and Trump are named in Epstein documents
Former US Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump are mentioned in newly unsealed Jeffrey Epstein-related court documents, but they are not accused of any wrongdoing involving the disgraced sex trafficking financier. Clinton, who sometimes flew aboard Epstein’s private plane, is listed repeatedly in the documents. Trump’s name appears in a document in which Epstein is quoted as saying he would invite the then-real estate mogul to join him at a casino. The unsealed documents also list prominent individuals who have denied accusations against them, including the UK’s Prince Andrew and prominent litigator Alan Dershowitz. All accused have denied allegations of wrongdoing.
Russia and Ukraine agree largest prisoner swap
Russia and Ukraine have agreed a prisoner swap to free hundreds of soldiers, the first time in five months the two sides have struck such a deal. In a diplomatic breakthrough that came amid an escalation in hostilities, Ukraine secured the release of 230 hostages and freed 248 Russian prisoners in return – the largest exchange since the beginning of the war. The “complex” negotiations were successful thanks to the United Arab Emirates, which acted as an intermediary.