In a recent interview with NBC News, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif detailed the circumstances of last month's events.
"It's unfortunate that the United States, based on misinformation, based on ignorance and arrogance, combined on a course that has brought the region very close to the brink. [...] We were very close to a war", Zarid said, cited by NBC News.
Trump justified the assassination of Soleimani by claiming that the latter posed a threat to American assets abroad. Tehran quickly responded to the extrajudicial killing of its top general by firing ballistic missiles at two military installations in Iraq that house US troops. Despite that no American personnel were reported to have been injured, the US Department of Defence subsequently began claiming that an estimated 100 soldiers suffered what was loosely characterized as traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in the attack. Zarif noted that the firing of the missiles at US bases in Iraq were intended to send a "clear message".
"We wanted to show to the United States that they could not bully Iran. Actions against Iran will have repercussions, but the intention was not to kill anybody [...] The intention was to send a message, a very clear message to the United States, that if they kill Iranians, we will hit back", Zarif said, cited by NBC News.
Zarif told the broadcaster that Iran had no influence over militias in Iraq or in Lebanon, denying a time-honored set of accusations by Western nations alleging Tehran's influence in the region. Zarif pointed out that Soleimani, during his ill-fated Baghdad visit in January, was trying to ease tensions and persuade militias in Iraq to not take further military action after they had attacked the US embassy in Baghdad in late December 2019.
Soleimani was working at "containing people from engaging in actual military operations against anybody [...] This was his job. This was what he was trying to do, to contain the situation", Zarif noted.
Zarif detailed that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had written an "extremely inappropriate letter to Iran" at the height of the crisis in January, adding that this message contained "threats", although the Tehran diplomat carefully declined to cite the content.
"Let him say what he put in that letter", Zarif offered, cited by NBC News.
Amid Tehran's retaliatory actions for the assassination of their top general, a gun crew in Iran accidentally shot down a Ukraine-flagged Boeing 737 passenger aircraft outside Tehran on 8 January, killing all 176 aboard. Iran admitted the mistake and clamed to have mistook the aircraft for an incoming cruise missile. Most passengers were Iranian or Canadian, flying to Toronto with a stopover in Kiev.
Zarif told NBC News that Tehran does not currently have the resources to decipher the black boxes from the downed 737, adding that Tehran asked the US and other Western nations for assistance.
"We have asked for help, why haven't the United States helped us? This is a humanitarian issue. Why haven't they given us the software? Why haven't they given us the expertise? [...] There are still a lot of unknowns. That's why we want more than anybody else to know what is in the black box, to know what actually happened", Zarif told NBC News, adding that Tehran "will not touch the black box without the presence of all interested parties".
Zarif acknowledged that relations between Washington and Tehran have deteriorated sharply, and recalled his experience in communicating with the Obama administration.
"It didn't used to be this way [...] I'm still the same foreign minister that dealt with John Kerry in a respectable way", Zarif told NBC News, putting the blame on the Trump administration for triggering a crisis apparently initiated at the wish of the president.
"The United States hit at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and these are the consequences and we can't control the consequences, nor can the United States. I mean, people are responsible for the consequences of their actions and I think people who initiated this, need to walk back", Zarif said, cited by NBC News.
After a tumultuous 2019 that saw several attacks on a number of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and tit-for-tat accusations of wrongdoing between Tehran and Washington, the US military has significantly beefed up its presence in the Middle East. While Tehran has repeatedly confirmed its readiness to repel any military aggression, Trump hinted that at his decree the Pentagon could strike Tehran at any time, sparking fears of a full-scale war in the Middle East.