By Nafisa Eltahir
DUBAI (Reuters) – The successor to the Iranian commander killed in a U.S. drone strike would suffer the same fate if he followed a similar path by killing Americans, the U.S. special representative for Iran said, according to Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.
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Washington blamed General Qassem Soleimani for masterminding attacks by Iran-aligned militias on U.S. forces in the region. U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 3 drone strike in Iraq after an escalation that began last month with missile strikes that killed an American contractor, which Washington blamed on an Iranian-aligned militia in Iraq.
Iran responded to the killing of Soleimani by launching missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq on Jan. 8, although no U.S. soldiers were killed.
After Soleimani's death, Tehran swiftly appointed Esmail Ghaani as the new head of the Quds Force, an elite unit in the Revolutionary Guards that handles actions abroad. Ghaani has pledged to pursue Soleimani's course.
"If Ghaani follows the same path of killing Americans then he will meet the same fate," U.S. envoy Brian Hook told the Arabic-language daily Asharq al-Awsat.
He said in the interview in Davos, Switzerland that Trump had long made it clear "that any attack on Americans or American interests would be met with a decisive response.
"This isn't a new threat. The president has always said that he will always respond decisively to protect American interests," Hook said. "I think the Iranian regime understands now that they cannot attack America and get away with it."
After his appointment, Ghaani said he would "continue in this luminous path" taken by Soleimani and that the goal was to drive U.S. forces out of the region, Iran's long-stated policy.
The U.S threat to kill Ghaani is a sign of "governmental terrorism", Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Thursday, according to the official IRIB news agency.
"These words are an official announcement and a clear unveiling of America's targeted and governmental terrorism," Mousavi said, calling on the international community to condemn Hook's comments.
The Revolutionary Guards aerospace division commander said four U.S. military bases in the region were used to deploy aircraft and drones involved in the Jan. 3 attack that killed Soleimani, including two bases in Iraq and another in Kuwait.
"Most of the drones" had taken off from Kuwait, Amirali Hajizadeh told state television, without saying if a drone from Kuwait was ultimately responsible for the hit on Soleimani.
U.S.-Iranian tensions have steadily increased since Trump withdrew the United States from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers in 2018 and imposed tough news sanctions that have hammered the Iranian economy.
The military flare-up began in December when rockets fired at U.S. bases in Iraq killed a U.S. contractor. Washington blamed pro-Iran militia and carried out air strikes that killed at least 25 fighters. After the militia surrounded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad for two days, Trump ordered the drone strike on Soleimani.
(Reporting by Nafisa Eltahir and Parisa Hafezi with additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Michael Perry and Mark Heinrich)