In July of last year, I wrote an article entitled “Crisis in Iran: Are we headed for War?”. In my closing statements, I argued that the Iran-US conflict was at a breaking point and that what comes next will shape relations between the West and the Middle East for years to come. The events of last month have shown that the Iran-US crisis is far from over and that the possibility of war has never been greater.
On January 3 2020, a U.S. drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport targeted and killed the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani was head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, a group which has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the U.S., Canada, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Six other people were killed during the attack, including Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a Kataib Hezbollah leader. Muhandis was also deputy commander of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), a military organisation built to fight ISIS. President Donald Trump defended the attack as a “defensive action” meant to “stop a war”. The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Soleimani was plotting “imminent attacks” on U.S. personnel and interests in the region. “It was time to take this action so that we could disrupt this plot, deter further aggression from Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian regime, as well as to attempt to de-escalate the situation”.
General Qasem Soleimani was considered the second most powerful person in Iran after the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Following his death, the Supreme Leader announced three days of national morning. Two days after the attack, thousands of Iranians gathered in the streets of Ahvaz and Mashhad to mourn the death of Soleimani as his body arrived in Iran for a funeral procession. The next day, hundreds of thousands of Iranian attended Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran. Mourners were heard shouting “Death to America” and burning U.S. and Israeli flags, highlighting the anger and hatred felt towards the Americans and their allies. In the Iranian press, Soleimani was labelled as a “glorious martyr” who demonstrated great loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and strong leadership in Iranian conflict zones. Ayatollah Khamenei warned that “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack, and that Soleimani’s death would double “resistance” against the US and Israel. In response, the U.S. announced that they would send 3,000 additional troops to the Middle East from the 82nd Airborne Division as a precautionary measure amid rising threats from Iran.
The Iranian response to the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani was one of national outrage. What quickly followed was a series of threats between the US and Iranian officials indicating the rising tensions between the two countries. A day after the assassination, Iranian General Gholamali Abuhamzeh issued a statement that said that the IRGC had identified at least 35 U.S. targets that could be hit in retaliatory strikes. In response, President Donald Trump tweeted that “Iran is talking very badly about targeting certain USA assets as revenge for our ridding the world of their terrorist leader”. He warned that if “Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites… some at a very high level and important to Iran and Iranian culture”. Trump said that the 52 Iranian sites represented the 52 Americans held hostages by Iranian protesters in the 1979 attack of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. This not only demonstrates the period of escalation in Iran-US relations, but the historical symbolism behind these threats.
On January 7, Iran’s parliament passed a bill condemning all branches of the US Armed Forces and the employees of the Pentagon as “terrorists”. The bill stated that “any aid to these forces, including military, intelligence, financial, technical, service or logistical, will be considered as cooperation in a terrorist act”. Later that day, Iran launched “Operation Martyr Soleimani”, sending 12 to 15 missiles to strike several US targets located throughout Iran and Iraq. This included the Al-Assad Airbase where 1500 soldiers are housed. Whilst there were no casualties reported, the Iranian state media issued a statement that said: “We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted”. President Donald Trump responded in a televised address to the nation, claiming that Iran “appears to be standing down”. He added that “since 1979 nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive, destabilising behaviour in the Middle East and beyond. But those days are over”. He finished the address by announcing that the U.S. will “immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions” against Iran.
This new wave of Iran-US conflict reached another potential breaking point on January 8, when a Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) flight crashed shortly after taking off from the Iranian capital in Tehran, killing all 176 passengers and crew members on board. The Iranian government were quick to deny allegations of a targeted attack, claiming that the UIA plane suffered a technical malfunction which caused it to crash shortly after take-off. However, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement that said “we have intelligence from multiple sources, including our allies and our own intelligence… that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional.” Shortly afterwards, The New York Times published a video that appeared to show two missiles targeting the airliner. On January 11, three days after the crash, Iran’s military admitted on state TV that the UIA plane was shot down “unintentionally”. President Hassan Rouhani described the attack as an “unforgivable mistake”, caused by a “human error” in which the commercial airliner was mistaken for a “hostile plane”. The aircraft had been flying close to a “sensitive site” belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. After a short attempt at communication, the Iranian aerospace general Brig-Gen Amir Ali Hajizadehhad told journalists he had no choice but to shoot it down.
There are many contradictions in the recent events involving the US and Iran. The question of whether Iran was following a process of de-escalation by admitting to the UIA plane crash is a complex one. Why it took 3 days for them to admit fault is still a mystery to many people. The assassination of General Qasem Soleimani has been defended by US officials as an attempt to prevent a serious attack from Iran. To answer the threat of violence with more violence is controversial to say the least. Donald Trump has called on Europe and Russia and the rest of the world to pull out of the 2015 Nuclear Deal and to establish a new one with an “increasingly aggressive” Iran. This has been met with mass scepticism from other countries, who do not support Trump’s severe economic sanctions against Iran.
The Iran-US conflict is far from over. So long as there is violence on both sides, there will never be peace. To speak of the “threat” of war is one thing, but for it to become a reality would irrevocably alter the face of our planet; not just for years, but for generations to come.