by Josh Lalonde
t approximately 1:45 AM local time on January 3, a US drone fired three missiles at a two-vehicle convoy leaving Baghdad International Airport, killing seven people and wounding several others. Among the dead were Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Four days later, on January 7, Iranian missiles hit the Ain al-Asad military base in western Iraq, which houses US troops stationed in the country as part of the mission to counter ISIS, as well as another base near Erbil in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Later that night, Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 crashed shortly after taking off from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew on board. After denying any involvement for several days, the Iranian government eventually admitted that they had shot down the plane, mistaking it for a missile directed at a military facility.
This flurry of events has led to an outpouring of commentary from politicians and pundits — praising or denouncing the assassination of Soleimani, analyzing or questioning the legality of the strike, predicting the potential consequences for the Middle East as a whole, and so on. Many of the questions raised by these commentators cannot be definitively answered as of the time of writing, but others admit of at least a partial response.
Who was Qassem Soleimani?
Qassem Soleimani was a Major-General in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a branch of the Iranian military responsible for defense of the Islamic Revolution against both internal and external enemies. According to Middle East Eye, he was “born into an agricultural family in the village of Qanat-e Malek in southeast Iran in 1957” and began working in construction at the age of 13 to help pay his father’s debts. This humble background contributed to making him a popular hero in Iran.
Soleimani joined the IRGC and fought in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. From 1998 until his death, he was the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, a branch dedicated to unconventional warfare, often through support for non-state armed groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. According to some analysts, this position made him the second-most powerful person in Iran, after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Under his leadership, the Quds Force organized, trained, and armed various Iraqi militia groups that fought against the US occupation of the country after the 2003 invasion. IRGC support for these militias and groups like Hezbollah has led to accusations from the US and other Western governments that Iran is a “state sponsor of terror,” culminating in the US designation of the IRGC as a whole as a terrorist organization.
From the beginning of the Syrian War in 2011, Soleimani became increasingly influential across the Middle East. Iraqi militias under his Quds Force command first crossed into Syria to fight in support of the government of Bashar al-Assad, then later played a key role in the war against the Islamic State organization in Iraq. (The leader of one such militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed alongside Soleimani.)
The Quds Force has allegedly also supplied the Houthis in Yemen and has been accused by the US of involvement in a number of attacks on ships and facilities in the Persian Gulf, including a devastating drone attack on Saudi oil fields in September 2019. As a result of his alleged role in these operations, Soleimani was reportedly a target for Israeli, Saudi, and American intelligence agencies and he had been reported killed on several previous occasions.
What led to the assassination of Soleimani?
The immediate lead-up to the US assassination of Soleimani was an escalating series of attacks between the US, on the one hand, and Iran and its Iraqi allies, on the other. First, on December 27, 2019, a rocket attack on the K1 military base near Kirkuk, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, killed an American civilian contractor and wounded several US and Iraqi military personnel.
Though no group claimed responsibility for the attack, the US responded two days later by carrying out missile strikes against bases belonging to the Iraqi militia Kata’ib Hezbollah (not to be confused with the Lebanese Hezbollah) on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. The strikes reportedly killed at least 25 people and wounded at least 50 more, leading Iraq’s acting Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to condemn them as “an unacceptable vicious assault that will have dangerous consequences.”
Two days later (December 31), thousands of protesters converged on the US embassy in Baghdad, using rocks and Molotov cocktails to attack a security kiosk at its entrance. US President Donald Trump posted a tweet the same day claiming that both the rocket attack and the protest at the embassy had been “orchestrated” by Iran, which the Iranian Foreign Ministry denied.
This embassy confrontation seems to have been the last straw from the US perspective, resulting in the decision to kill Soleimani — though the US has repeatedly claimed to have had intelligence indicating that Soleimani was planning attacks on US embassies. Speaking at a private Republican Party fundraising event on January 17, Trump justified the assassination on the grounds that Soleimani was “saying bad things about our country”, but did not mention the alleged imminent threat he is said to have posed to the US.
A long history of antagonism
The assassination of Soleimani is only the latest chapter in nearly seventy years of US intervention in Iranian affairs. Hostilities between Iran and the United States can be traced back as far as US support for the 1953 coup which overthrew democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This was motivated by Mossadegh’s nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and fears that he would turn towards the Soviet Union.
Following the coup, the Shah Mohammed Reza ruled the country with the help of the secret police force SAVAK, known for torturing and killing opponents of the monarchy, and adhered to a broadly pro-US foreign policy. When the Shah was eventually overthrown by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the US, seen as having propped up the former monarch’s rule, became the new Islamic Republic’s chief foreign enemy.
Later that year, a group of student supporters of the Islamic Revolution occupied the US embassy in Tehran to protest the US refusal to extradite the former Shah to Iran, holding the embassy staff hostage for 444 days. This perceived humiliation of the US on the world stage contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s defeat in the 1980 election and has been a lingering wound for the US foreign policy establishment ever since. (On January 4, Trump tweeted a threat to destroy 52 Iranian cultural sites “representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago”, in reference to this event.)
US action against Iran continued in the 1980s, when the US provided military support to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, which launched the devastating Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1980 to 1988. During the war, which ultimately cost up to a million lives, the US supplied Iraq with technical assistance and intelligence used to carry out chemical weapons attacks against both military and civilian targets. In the later stages of the war, after Iran had extensively deployed mines in the Persian Gulf to prevent arms shipments from reaching Iraq, the US became more directly involved, attacking Iranian oil platforms and warships in Operations Nimble Archer and Praying Mantis in 1987 and 1988 respectively.
Finally, on July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes, having entered Iranian territorial waters, shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers and crew. The US later claimed that the Vincennes had mistaken the civilian plane for a fighter jet attacking their ship and never apologized for the incident, though it did pay $131.8 million in compensation.
Moving forward to more recent history, the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 respectively led to a near-encirclement of Iran by US military bases. US President George W. Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address, included Iran with Iraq and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in what he called an “axis of evil”, alleging that Iran was “aggressively” pursuing “weapons of mass destruction” and “export[ing] terror.” These were the same charges that would soon be used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Prominent US politicians and officials such as John McCain and John Bolton continued to call for the US to “bomb Iran” throughout the Bush presidency.
In the past decade, hostilities between Iran and the US have centred around Iran’s nuclear energy program, and allegations that it was being (or could be) used to illicitly develop nuclear weapons. Under the Shah, the Iranian nuclear energy program was pursued with the assistance of the US and other Western countries, but most of these agreements were suspended following the Islamic Revolution. The US allegedly pressured a number of countries as well as the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) to end their assistance to the Iranian nuclear program, which led the Iranian government to “resort to secrecy in obtaining technology to which they were entitled under the [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT],” according to commentator Cyrus Safdari.
This partially-clandestine program was revealed in 2002, leading to a 2006 UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. During a series of tense negotiations, the Iranian government refused to do so, while the US refused to agree to any form of uranium enrichment in Iran. Between 2010 and 2012 a number of Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, reportedly by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad working with Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). During the same period, a sophisticated computer virus known as Stuxnet, almost certainly designed by US and/or Israeli intelligence agencies, damaged uranium enrichment centrifuges at the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz.
In 2015, Iran reached an agreement with the US and other countries on restrictions to its nuclear program in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), widely known as the Iran nuclear deal. This deal allowed Iran to continue research and development on nuclear technology under a strict inspections regime while lifting some of the sanctions previously applied to the country due to its nuclear program, including unfreezing up to $100 billion in assets.
The JCPOA was widely regarded as one of the Obama administration’s most significant foreign policy achievements, but was vociferously criticized by Republicans, leading Trump to officially withdraw the US from the agreement in May 2018 and reapply sanctions on Iran in a campaign of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic.
In response to the US withdrawal, Iran began uranium enrichment at levels beyond those permitted by the deal, while offering to cease these operations if the remaining signatories to the deal were able to provide sufficient economic incentives to counteract the renewed US sanctions.
What comes next?
In the first weeks since the assassination there have been massive demonstrations of support for Soleimani, with hundreds of thousands of people attending funeral processions in Iraq and Iran. The parliament of Iraq passed a non-binding resolution calling for US troops to leave the country, which the US has shown no inclination to abide by. The effect of the assassination has so far been largely to consolidate opposition to the US in Iran and Iraq.
It seems that Iran has managed, with its missile strikes of January 7, to retaliate for Soleimani’s assassination without provoking further American reprisals, despite Trump’s threats. There are also signs of de-escalation from the US, including the State Department’s instruction to American diplomatic officials to limit contact with Iranian opposition groups such as the MEK.
For now, the elements within the US and Iranian governments that want to avoid an all-out war seem to have prevailed, but tensions are still high, and the potential for a small incident to escalate into a broader conflict remains.