On 3 January, the United States delivered a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport, instantly killing a number of officials including Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was a prominent military official who wielded considerable power in Iran and significant influence in the Middle East as a commander of the Quds Force which served to expand Iranian military influence in the Middle East. The death of the General immediately made headlines worldwide. It was a shock to many Americans who were kept in the dark about the decision to kill Soleimani, and more so to the Iranians who suffered the loss of an important asset who purveyed Iranian interests in the Middle East, a man feared and revered by some, a senior government official.
This assassination, which was authorised by the United States President Donald Trump, received widespread critique and sparked immense debate. The operation was widely branded as an assassination, although some dissenters refuted the term on the grounds that Soleimani was perceived as a terrorist, therefore justifying his elimination.
A brief background of US-Iran relations
The United States and Iran have had a complicated and rocky relationship spanning decades. Let us have a brief look at the history between the two states.
In 1979, during the Iranian Revolution, the Shah (leader) who was supported by the United States faced protests and demonstrations against his secular rule. He was then overthrown and the country was declared an Islamic Republic. In the same year leading up to 1981, the United States embassy in Tehran was seized by protesters. Americans were held hostage for 444 days. The hostage crisis soured relations between the two states. Years later in 1988, an American warship shot down a passenger plane, Iran Air flight 655. The Americans had mistaken the plane for a fighter jet. All 290 passengers on board died, sparking an international controversy. Iran was outraged and condemned the accident as an atrocity.
Trump’s rocky relationship with Iran began when he dishonoured a nuclear deal with Iran in 2018. The Iran nuclear deal was a long-term agreement involving the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia and Germany. Iran had agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to limit its nuclear programme due to fears by the international community that the country was developing nuclear weapons.
In 2018, President Trump abandoned the deal, criticising it for not being effective enough to prevent Iran from pursuing clandestine nuclear activities. He then reimposed sanctions on Iran which sent its economy on a downward spiral. This move was highly controversial, outraging the international community. The Uk, France and Germany strongly opposed this move.
Soleimani’s assassination on 3 January heightened the already tense US - Iran relations, leading many to believe that further confrontation or any retaliatory action would bring the countries to war. The Iranian General was a valuable asset to the country as he championed Iranian interests in the Middle East through military force. The topic of World War III dominated social media discussions as many anticipated the next unpredictables move from both countries.
How the chain of events unfolded relating to the assassination
On 27 December, rockets were launched at an Iraqi airbase, killing an American contractor. The US then responded with airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on 29 December. On 31 December members of the pro-Iranian militia, Kataib-Hezbollah, attacked the US embassy in Baghdad. The reception was set alight. It was then on 3 January when Soleimani was killed by drone strike, along with other officials when leaving Baghdad International Airport. Iran responded with outrage, vowing to exact revenge on the Americans.
According to Trump, Soleimani was “plotting imminent and sinister attacks” on American diplomats and military personnel. There was immense public outrage as the president failed to provide evidence and further justification for his actions. The world waited in anticipation for Iran’s response, with speculation of a possible war. On 18 January, Iran then launched 16 missiles to destroy the al-Assad Airbase in Iraq. No one was injured as Iraq had been warned about possible military strikes on their land and in turn warned the Americans, giving them enough time to take cover under bunkers. Many anticipated the United States’ reaction with fear of further escalation of violence. Trump, however, rather de-escalated the situation by tweeting , “All is well”.
The initial reaction among the international community was one of shock and outrage. Trump was heavily criticised for pursuing reckless goals which propagated more insecurity in the Middle East region. The brazen act of assassinating a senior government official in a third country was a violation of both international law and US law. Staunch critics of Trump’s foreign policy strategy, or lack of a coherent one thereof, saw this move as one of Trump’s most provoking decisions.
Arguments for and against Soleimani’s assassination
According to the US government, Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of many American troops as he supported militias in Iraq. He allegedly planned several terrorist attacks and his Quds force equipped Iraqi militias. He expanded military influence in the Middle East. The United States has revealed that hundreds of American troops and personnel had been killed in attacks by militias supported by Iran.
On 8 January, the President claimed in a Tweet that the Iranians were planning to attack the American embassies. The assassination was therefore seen as necessary to deter Iran from further attacks on American interests. Supporters of the assassination argue that it was necessary for the United States sought to send a strong message and reassert military dominance through the assassination to prevent Iran from continuously attacking American interests.
On the other hand, many believe that this was a rather reckless move. Critics of the decision argue that Trump’s action was a reckless attempt to improve his chances of reelection. The controversy conveniently distracted the public from the ongoing impeachment process. The move was largely criticised for bringing about more instability and insecurity, as well as for increasing the possibility of another war. Americans took to social media to express their reluctance to escalate violent conflict which would harm innocent civilians and their contempt for Trump’s behaviour. It was also revealed that previous administrations had opted not to assassinate Soleimani on the grounds that it was too risky. There is a possibility that the assassination will increase attacks by Iran-backed militias on US interests. As a high ranking and respected official, Soleimani’s death has made him a martyr and will set grounds for recruitment into militias.
During Soleimani’s funeral, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to mourn his death. The crowds emanated a sense of unity and nationality as the people mourned the loss of their leader and stood against a common enemy, the United States.
On 8 January, a Ukraine-bound aeroplane was shot down in Tehran shortly after takeoff. 176 passengers perished. Many suspected that it was an attack on Iran. After much speculation, on 11 January the government admitted to erroneously shooting down the plane. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps admitted that it had mistaken it for a cruise missile. This sparked public outrage, leading to citizens taking to the streets in protests against the government.
Iran has already appointed Soleimani’s successor to lead the Iranian Quds Force, Esmail Qaani. Qaani who worked as Soleimani’s deputy for years, called the assassination a cowardly act which he will make sure to avenge. He has also promised to exert the same force and strategy as his predecessor did. We have yet to see how much influence he will have on Iran’s operations going forward.
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