The crisis explained

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Today, Qasem Soleimani will be buried in his hometown of Kermin in south-eastern Iran.

Five days ago, he was killed by a US airstrike whilst leaving Bagdad (the capital of Iraq) airport in a two-car convoy. Shortly after, the Pentagon announced their successful operation to kill who President Donald Trump has branded, “the number one terrorist in the world.”

However, to many Iranians, General Soleimani was their hero ‘Shadow Commander,’ loved by thousands and even written into poetry and pop songs.

Now he is their “living martyr” – a symbol of their violent struggle with America.

But why was Qasem Soleimani such an vital yet volatile figure? Why did the US chose now to “eliminate” him? And what next? – what does Trump’s monumental action mean for world peace?

A 40-year overnight success

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran.

500,000+ people were killed in the space of two years. In 1988, a truce was agreed. Iran retook most of its lost territory.

The war triggered Iran’s more expansive foreign policy and, importantly, its pursuit of nuclear weapons. It also built the reputation of some senior commanders including, Qasem Soleimani.

Since becoming Head of the Quds Force in 1998, Soleimani had masterminded Iran’s military abroad.

He was the architect of: Iran’s support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war against the rebels in Syria, the rise of pro-Iranian paramilitaries in Iraq, proxy-support for Hezbollah (a Shia political party) in Lebanon, limited funding of the Houthi (Shia military rebellion forces) in Yemen, and the Iranian fight against ISIS.

(Being a 90% Shia Muslim country in a 90% Sunni Muslim world, Iran’s sympathies lie mainly with Shia forces across the Middle East.)

When Trump pressed that big red button on the 3rd of January, he eliminated the second most powerful figure in Iran. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was seen weeping at the death of his ‘Shadow Commander.’

US-Iranian relations – a downward spiral

Recent weeks have seen potentially aggressive and dangerous Iranian actions towards the United States.

In addition to the regular and repeated use of proxy forces to attack US interests and allies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, Iran has conducted big, joint naval exercises with its allies China and Russia for the first time in the Gulf of Oman. The storming of the US embassy in Baghdad on the 31st December 2019 epitomised a frosty year of Iranian-US relations.

However, it would be wrong to assume Iran as the only perpetrator.

The events of 2019 only brush the tip of the iceberg that symbolises Iranian-US conflict. Beneath the surface lingers years of unresolved tensions.  

As early as 1953, the downward spiral began when Mossadeq, Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister, was ousted in a coup orchestrated by US and British intelligence agencies.

Decades later, the 1979-81 US embassy hostage crisis re-established tensions. For 444 days, 52 American hostages were held inside the US embassy in Tehran (the capital of Iran) by student supporters of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Difficult relations between Iran and the US were understandably exacerbated by this incident: the US imposed strict sanctions and severed ties with Iran. To this day there is no United States embassy in Tehran.

After 8 years of fighting with Iraq, hostilities turned to America when in 1988, an Iran Air passenger plane ‘mistaken for a fighter jet’ was shot down by a US warship. 290 people were killed – mostly pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

2002 saw President George W. Bush include Iran in his “axis of evil” speech and thus accuse the Iranian government of sponsoring terrorism and seeking weapons for mass destruction. Resulting sanctions caused Iran’s currency to lose 2/3 of its value in two years.

Iranian president Ahmadinejad struck back in 2010 by inexplicably claiming that most people believed the US was behind 9/11.

However, in 2013 relations looked to be on the mend. Presidents Rouhani and Obama partook in the first conversation between Iranian and American Heads of State in 30 years.

Progression continued in 2015 when Iran joined the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany in the P5+1 agreement: a long-term deal on their nuclear programs. Iran limited its nuclear activity and allowed international inspectors in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Things were looking up.

Then, in 2018, Donald Trump abandoned the P5+1 agreement and reinstated sanctions on Iran and its traders, before sending an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers into the Gulf.

When in 2019, explosions hit 6 oil-tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the US accused Iran.

Subsequently, Iran shot down a US military drone over Strait of Hormuz.

Therefore, the current instability between the US and Iran is not the result of one, random action by the US President, but instead an accumulation of decades of tense relations.

Whether the events of 2020 will lead to the epitome of US-Iranian (or even world) tensions, will be decided in the next few weeks.

Why now?

After so long with US-Iranian tensions under severe strain, a reasonable question would be: why now? Why did the American government chose the start of a new decade to escalate the likelihood of more war and violence?

There are 3 possibilities:

  1. Past actions

The Trump administration has issued a statement claiming that the, ‘Quds force provided funding, training, weapons & equipment to terrorist groups in the Middle East including Hezbollah and a Palestinian Islamic Jihad Group based in Gaza.’

It is therefore possible, but not likely, that the US had simply had enough.

2. Deterrent

Perhaps the US intended to deter Iran from increasing their involvement in proxy wars against the US and its allies in the Middle East.

This would make sense as General Soleimani was the key commander of Iran’s proxy forces.

3. Predicted future plans

The Pentagon claims that it has intelligence that, Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region…General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”

This seems the most plausible possibility, as it is the only suggestion that gives a direct and compelling reason for the US to act when it did. Whether the US was correct in its assumption will remain a mystery.

What next?

The question on everyone’s lips.

America does not want war: President Trump has said, “We took action to stop a war, not start a war.”

The world does not want war: multiple ‘Stop War’ campaigns, protests and marches across the world have proven this.

Iran does not want war.

However, Iran must act: no response would have them lose face. Oppositely, an extreme response would have them lose their heads.

Therefore, they have three obvious options:

  1. Renew the siege on the US embassy in Baghdad
  2. Co-ordinate attacks on the 5,000 US troops in Iraq
  3. Prompt demonstrations of their proxy forces

The US’ only real option at this point is to increase their military presence in the Gulf.

Already, Iran have:

  • Summoned the Swiss envoy (the Swiss embassy now represents US interests)
  • Held a top security meeting in Tehran
  • Pulled out of parts of the 2015 nuclear P5+1 deal – specifically ending their commitment to limit enrichment of uranium

In retaliation, the US have:

  • Sent a small number of reinforcements to the US embassy in Baghdad
  • Increased their military presence in the Gulf
  • (Trump has) threatened to attack 52 sites (including culturally important sites) if Tehran retaliates

N.B. Boris Johnson has said the UK would not back Trump’s planned attacks of these sites

Minutes ago, breaking news announced that a stampede at the funeral of Qasem Soleimani has killed over thirty and wounded as many as one hundred mourners.

Will further bloodshed follow as a result of US-Iranian tensions? Will 2020 be a year splattered in red? Will the world be plunged into another Armageddon of wars, but this time, with nuclear destruction as a feasible reality?

Only time will tell.