When Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hosted the family of slain military commander Qassem Soleimani, as well as the top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leadership on Saturday, many anticipated fiery statements amid soaring tensions with the US.
The meeting, which marked one of Ayatollah Ail Khamenei's rare appearances in the coronavirus pandemic, came ahead of the second death anniversary of Soleimani, the former IRGC Quds Force commander.
Respected at home and reviled abroad, Soleimani was among the most trusted and loyal lieutenants of Khamenei, overseeing IRGC's extraterrestrial operations.
"Gen. Soleimani's assassins," Iran's leader told the select gathering, which included IRGC chief Hossein Salami and incumbent IRGC Quds Force head Esmail Qaani, "would be consigned to the dustbin of history, but of course, after receiving retribution for their worldly crimes."
He did not elaborate on the "worldly retribution" for Soleimani's assassins -- a reference to former US President Donald Trump and his military squad -- but the message was well received.
Khamenei's remarks came one day after Iran's Foreign Ministry said the US bears "definitive international responsibility" for the assassination of Soleimani and his associates in a drone strike outside the Baghdad Airport on Jan. 3, 2020.
In a strongly-worded statement, the ministry noted that the killing of Soleimani was an example of "state terrorism" carried out on the direct orders of Trump, vowing to bring perpetrators to justice.
The new government in Tehran headed by former judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, a close friend of Soleimani and a top conservative figure, has made it one of its key foreign policy priorities -- to pursue Soleimani's assassination case legally.
A high-ranking committee instituted to pursue investigations into the case has held several meetings in recent months.
In September, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told the committee that the role of US officials was "unforgivable" and it was Iran's "definite policy" to bring the perpetrators to justice.
- Legal complexities
After subdued commemorations last year, when Iran was grappling with the third wave of the coronavirus, ceremonies this year to mark the second anniversary of Soleimani's assassination are more elaborate.
"The running theme of week-long events -- in Tehran and other major Iranian cities, as well as Iranian missions abroad -- is bringing the perpetrators to justice and ousting the US-led forces from the region," a senior diplomat told Anadolu Agency.
On legally pursuing the case in international forums, he said the government, parliament and judiciary are "on the same page," unlike before, although details are still vague.
Importantly, last week, Iran's judiciary chief Mohsen Eje'i said the judiciary's human rights branch and Foreign Ministry are diligently pursuing the case, noting "progress" and vowing "severe revenge."
In a fresh development Saturday, Iran's deputy vice president for legal affairs in a letter to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) called for legal measures to prevent "state-centric assassination of foreign state and diplomatic officials."
The detailed letter highlights UNGA's responsibilities to maintain international peace and security, protect human rights, resolve international disputes, condemn acts of aggression, denounce crimes against humanity and strengthen the rule of law in international society.
"It is highly proposed that the (UN) General Assembly, while condemning state-centric assassination of foreign state and diplomatic officials, takes all possible legal initiatives within its authorities, including the adoption of a resolution to prevent such crimes in the future," it said.
The letter followed a statement by the Foreign Ministry that the issue is being followed up "at all domestic, bilateral, regional and international levels," and before that a senior judiciary official's remarks on holding a court before the Iranian new year.
The head of the judiciary's international affairs division, Kazem Gharibabadi, in an interview Wednesday with state TV announced that a special court to try 40 men accused in Soleimani's assassination will be held before March 21, the Iranian new year.
He also noted that Tehran and Baghdad have exchanged documents about the case, agreeing to carry out complementary investigations by their respective judiciaries.
Mohammad Reza Jalali, a Tehran-based lawyer, told Anadolu Agency that there are "multiple bottlenecks" in the case, despite close cooperation between Iran and Iraq.
"There is no question that it was an illegal act by the US, which even American legal luminaries admit," he said. "But these investigations by Iran and Iraq and verdicts against the culprits are symbolic at best."
- Revenge scenario
Hours after the assassinations of Soleimani and his close associates, Iran's Supreme Leader vowed "severe revenge,” which later came in the form of ballistic missiles targeting a US airbase in western Iraq on Jan. 8.
Hours before that, two missiles struck a Ukrainian commercial flight after it had taken off from Tehran Airport, killing all 176 people on board. The shocking incident, initially kept under wraps, sparked worldwide protests.
Since then, Iranian officials have occasionally spoken of avenging the death of their top military commander, adding to hostilities and tensions between Tehran and Washington.
On Friday, speaking at an event to mark the second anniversary of Soleimani's passing, IRGC's aerospace division commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh echoed the same threat.
"We will not allow the killers of Hajj Qassem (Soleimani) to rest, the revenge continues," he said, urging the US to "pack up and leave the region."
Ahmed Khatami, the influential Friday prayer leader in Tehran, in his sermon this week referred to the recently-held military drill on Iran's southern coastlines, warning the US and Israel.
The final revenge for Soleimani's killing, he asserted, was punishing all the "perpetrators, their commanders and advisers," in particular Trump.
"It's part of the psychological warfare between the US and Iran, and does not necessarily mean there will be a direct military confrontation over Soleimani's killing," Hassan Bakhtiari, a military and security analyst, told Anadolu Agency.
But, he asserted, Iran can create trouble for the American troops in its neighborhood, especially in Iraq, as has been seen repeatedly since January 2020.
"To be or not to be in the region, that's the question for Americans," he said.