Attacks on U.S. Allies Raise Tensions on Anniversary of Killing of Iran’s Soleimani

Yemen’s Houthi rebels seized an Emirati-flagged ship, explosive-laden drones targeted the Iraqi capital’s airport and hackers hit two Israeli newspapers on Monday, raising tensions in the Middle East as Iran-aligned militias attacked U.S. allies on the second anniversary of America’s killing of one of Tehran’s top generals.

Meanwhile, Iran held a massive memorial for Maj. Gen.

Qassem Soleimani

in the country’s capital to mark the anniversary of the American drone strike in Iraq that killed the military leader and an Iraqi militia commander on Jan. 3, 2020.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Monday’s attacks were coordinated or backed by Iran. They came a day after Iranian Supreme Leader

Ali Khamenei

tweeted: “Martyr Soleimani is more dangerous for his enemies than General Soleimani.”

They also followed protests by Iran-allied paramilitary groups in Iraq over the weekend. Crowds in Baghdad chanted “death to America” and vowed to avenge Gen. Soleimani’s killing.

“Iran is trying to show that they are taking revenge and that they are strong,” said

Hamdi Malik,

an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Iraq’s Shiite militias.

“But at the same time they don’t really want to start a war because they desperately need the sanctions to be lifted,” Mr. Malik said.

The attacks on Monday were less severe than previous assaults by Iran-aligned paramilitary groups during the past two years. They come as Iran negotiates with the U.S. and other world powers in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which lifted most international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for strict but temporary restrictions on its nuclear program.

Two armed drones were shot down near the Baghdad airport on Monday.


Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The killing of Gen. Soleimani pushed the Middle East to the brink of war, threatening to draw Iran, the U.S. and their allies throughout the region into direct conflict after decades of geopolitical tensions—heightened after then-President

Donald Trump

pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

Gen. Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s shadow wars abroad and the man who helped expand Iranian influence in the region despite an American pressure campaign on Tehran led by the Trump administration.

Iran continues to maintain lines of military and political influence throughout the region, having deepened its ties with key government and militia allies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.

But Iran and its allies in the region are now under pressure to de-escalate hostilities. In Iraq, voters issued a harsh rebuke to parties affiliated with pro-Iran groups in a parliamentary election in October. The country’s top court last week endorsed the results of the election, rejecting a challenge to the election results by Iran-aligned groups. The election handed the largest share of seats to an alliance led by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a self-styled nationalist who has vowed to limit the power of the militias.

Within the Middle East as a whole, some of Iran’s foes are also shifting toward a stance of rapprochement with Tehran, pivoting away from years of hostilities that reached a crescendo during the Trump administration. The moves come as the Biden administration moves to reduce the U.S. footprint in the region, a shift that Middle Eastern officials have cited as a motivation for the rapprochement. The United Arab Emirates sent its top security official to meet Iran’s president last month. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince

Mohammed bin Salman,

an avowed opponent of Iran, said last year that he wants improved relations with Tehran.

Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s powerful military commander, was killed in Iraq by a U.S. airstrike ordered by former President Donald Trump. WSJ’s Sune Rasmussen explains how his death may inflame tensions in the Middle East. Photo: Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office/Associated Press (Video from 1/3/20)

Those pressures mean that Iran and its network of allies in the region are trying to calibrate a response to the Soleimani anniversary without provoking an escalation with the U.S. and its own allies.

Yemen’s Houthi militants seized the Emirati-flagged ship Rwabee early on Monday as it sailed in the Red Sea off the country’s western coast. The Iran-aligned group, which controls most of northern Yemen, said the ship was transporting military equipment without permission and later aired images that appeared to show armored vehicles and military patrol boats on board the vessel.

The Saudi-led coalition, which intervened in Yemen’s civil war against the Houthis in 2015, said the ship was carrying ambulances and other medical supplies from the Yemeni island of Socotra, where they had been used in a field hospital run by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. It said the vessel was heading to the Saudi port city of Jizan, just north of Yemen.

Coalition spokesman Gen. Turki al-Malki called the ship’s seizure “piracy [that] represents a real threat to the freedom of maritime navigation and global trade in the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the southern Red Sea.” Yemen’s information minister said the attack “carries the fingerprints of the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guard.”

The seizure of the ship comes after the U.S. Navy seized a cache of assault rifles and ammunition on a fishing vessel from Iran that was likely headed to Yemen last month.

Separately on Monday, two armed drones targeted Baghdad’s airport complex, where the U.S.-led military coalition has a presence, according to the coalition and an Iraqi security official. Air defenses shot down the drones, which fell in a nearby open area, causing no casualties, according to the coalition.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the drone attack near the Baghdad airport. Sabreen, a news agency that is supportive of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, published images of what it said was a downed drone used in the attack, with the words “Soleimani’s revenge” written on one of the wings.

Also on Monday, two Israeli newspapers said that hackers targeted them to mark the anniversary of the Soleimani killing. The Jerusalem Post said that hackers posted an image on its website showing a model of Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility blowing up, paired with the text, “We are close to you where you do not think about it,” in English and Hebrew. The same image was published from the hacked Twitter account of the newspaper Maariv, the newspapers said. No one claimed responsibility for the hack.

Write to Jared Malsin at

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