TEHRAN, Iran - The blowback over the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general mounted Sunday as Iran announced it is abandoning the limits contained in the 2015 nuclear deal and Iraq's Parliament called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil.
The twin developments, if they come to pass, could bring Iran closer to building an atomic bomb and enable the Islamic State group to stage a comeback in Iraq, making the Middle East a far more dangerous and unstable place.
Iranian state television cited a statement by President Hassan Rouhani's administration saying the country would not observe limits on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran no longer faces any limitations in operations," a state TV broadcaster said.
In Iraq, meanwhile, lawmakers voted in favour of a resolution calling for an end of the foreign military presence in the country, including the estimated 5,000 U.S. troops stationed to help battle the Islamic State group. The bill is nonbinding and subject to approval by the Iraqi government but has the backing of the outgoing prime minister.
The two decisions capped a day of mass mourning over Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Friday. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets in the cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad to walk alongside the casket of Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran's proxy wars across the Mideast and was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in suicide bombings and other attacks.
Iran insisted that it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it wouldn't seek a nuclear weapon.
However, the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in May 2018. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran's longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.
Iran did not elaborate on what levels it would immediately reach in its program. Tehran has already increased its production, begun enriching uranium to 5% and restarted enrichment at an underground facility.
While it does not posses uranium enriched to weapons-grade levels of 90%, any push forward narrows the estimated one-year “breakout time” needed for it to have enough material to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog observing Iran's program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Iran said that its co-operation with the IAEA “will continue as before.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi earlier told journalists that Soleimani's killing would prompt Iranian officials to take an even harsher step away from the nuclear deal.
“In the world of politics, all developments are interconnected," Mousavi said.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said that after the killing of Soleimani, the government has two choices: End the presence of foreign troops in Iraq or restrict their mission to training Iraqi forces. He called for the first option.
Iraqi officials have denounced the airstrike as a violation of the country's sovereignty.
The majority of about 180 legislators present in Parliament voted in favour of the troop-removal resolution. It was backed by most Shiite members of Parliament, who hold a majority of seats. Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal.
Asked shortly before the parliamentary vote whether the U.S. would comply with an Iraqi government request for American troops to leave, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not answer directly.
But the added: “It is the United States that is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism from ISIS and others in the region.”
Amid threats of vengeance from Iran, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq said Sunday it is putting the battle against IS militants on hold to focus on protecting its own troops and bases. A U.S. pullout could not only allow the Islamic State to make a comeback but could also enable Iran to deepen its influence in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority-Shiite country.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the leader of Iran's major proxy, the militant group Hezbollah, said Soleimani's killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair targets for attacks. A former Revolutionary Guard leader suggested the Israeli city of Haifa and centres like Tel Aviv could be targeted.
Soleimani's killing has escalated the crisis between Tehran and Washington after months of back-and-forth attacks and threats that have put the wider Middle East on edge. Iran has promised “harsh revenge" for the U.S. attack, while Trump has likewise warned on Twitter that the U.S. will strike back at 52 targets “VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”
The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans “of the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks.”
Iranian state TV estimated that a million mourners came out to the Imam Reza shrine in the city of Mashhad to pay their respects to Soleimani, although that number could not be independently verified.
The casket moved slowly through streets choked with mourners wearing black, beating their chests and carrying posters with Soleimani's portrait. Demonstrators also carried red Shiite flags, which traditionally symbolize both the spilled blood of someone unjustly killed and a call for vengeance.
The processions mark the first time Iran honoured a single man with a multi-city ceremony. Not even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, received such a processional with his death in 1989. Soleimani on Monday will lie in state at Tehran's famed Musalla mosque as the revolutionary leader did before him.
Soleimani's remains will go to Tehran and Qom on Monday for public mourning processions. He will be buried in his hometown of Kerman.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.