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Iran tensions

Foreigners flee region as Iran strikes back at US

Evacuations weighs on economy as Tehran enacts 'revenge scenario'

TEHRAN/ISTANBUL -- Foreign workers are leaving Iraq and Iran amid rising tensions following Tehran's missile attacks on U.S.-led forces in Iraq after the killing of Iranian military commander Gen. Qassam Soleimani.

The evacuations by the international community will weigh on a regional economy that has already been battered by sanctions and conflict.

Japanese trading house Toyota Tsusho said it is considering a temporary evacuation of Japanese employees in Iran.

EgyptAir said Tuesday that it has suspended flights to Baghdad for three days "for the safety of our passengers and planes and until the security situation stabilizes in the city."

Oil companies are reportedly pulling employees from the suburbs of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, near the Iranian border. The Iraqi oil ministry said Friday that employees of U.S. oil companies were leaving the country, claiming that there would be no impact on the industry. But there are signs that the exodus is growing.

The Philippines has created plans to evacuate 6,000 nationals in Iraq and 1,600 in Iran if their safety is threatened.

The burial for Soleimani, leader of the elite Quds Force killed by an American airstrike last week in Baghdad, was postponed Tuesday after at least 56 people died in a stampede at the funeral procession. The stampede occurred as tens of thousands of people crowded the streets for Soleimani's funeral in his hometown of Kerman.

The Iranian parliament passed legislation Tuesday designating the U.S. Defense Department as a terrorist organization. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, had said his country is considering 13 "revenge scenarios" for Soleimani's killing.

Even the weakest scenario "can be a historic nightmare for the Americans," Shamkhani said.

The options, as well as Wednesday's missile strikes, are believed to include attacks on vessels passing through oil shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz.

"Geopolitical tensions are at their highest level this century," United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan also called for avoiding further escalations.

Experts think Iran wants to avoid a full-on clash with the U.S., given Washington's military power. But the Middle Eastern country's leadership faces pressure from hard-line conservatives to take decisive action in response to the airstrike.

Any death of American citizens caused by Iranian retaliation could cross the red line for President Donald Trump and potentially ignite an uncontrollable cycle of attacks in the region.

The international community is largely critical of the U.S. decision to kill Soleimani. Iran could choose not to act in the short term, looking to draw other countries to its side.

The death of Soleimani, who is considered a hero in Iran, has fueled anti-American sentiment and patriotism even among Iranians normally critical of the regime.

"As an Iranian, the U.S. actions are completely unacceptable," said a 36-year-old shop owner, who also slammed Trump for threatening to strike Iranian cultural sites.

Others are concerned about the possibility of a military clash, especially as Iran's economy suffers from U.S. sanctions.

"I don't want our government to retaliate too strongly," a 48-year-old office worker said. "The U.S. is just looking for an excuse to attack Iran."

The value of the Iranian rial fell following Soleimani's killing. A further escalation in tensions could raise living expenses for the Iranian public.

The growing tensions in the Middle East also are forcing Japanese companies to reevaluate their presence in Iran. Trading houses that conduct oil-related operations in Iran are gathering information to determine whether they need to relocate their staff out of the country or to tell them to stay at home.

Japan Tobacco, which began selling cigarettes in Iran in 2002 and now controls 60% of the market, is not weighing an evacuation at this time.

Thirty Japanese companies had bases in Iran as of October 2018, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry. A total of 714 Japanese citizens lived in the country at that time.

But despite its enthusiasm about Iran's business potential, Japan Inc. has struggled to make its commitments bear fruit.

Textile and chemicals trading house Chori had been supplying automobile paint to the country, but following Trump's decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal in the summer of 2018, the company retreated from the market the following year.

Osaka-based chemical company Kansai Paint left the country in 2018.

Mitsubishi Motors exported as many as 3,000 cars to Iran in 2016 but has recently halted exports there citing tougher custom procedures.

Additional reporting by Masamichi Hoshi and Ryosuke Hanafusa in Tokyo.

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