On January 3, the United States conducted a drone strike just outside of Baghdad International Airport that killed General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds military force and one of the most powerful figures in the Islamic Republic.
Iran has trained, equipped, and funded militias throughout the Middle East in places like Iraq, Yemen, and Syria in an attempt to use non-state actors through non-state channels to affect political situations in neighboring countries. One example of such Iranian behavior is the support of Houthi rebels in the Yemeni civil war against the state regime backed by Saudi Arabia (a close ally of the United States). In this context, Iran likely saw an opportunity to advance its interests in a region where it has few friends while frustrating the efforts of Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s regional rival, and close ally of the United States. General Soleimani’s death is the latest in a series of escalating incidents that traces back to President Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to unilaterally withdraw America from a nuclear deal brokered under the Obama administration with Iran and five of the world’s powers in order to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities and avert a potential arms race in the Middle East. Overall, however, enmity between Iran and the United States can be traced back to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution that culminated in a hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy, and further still a 1953 U.S.-backed coup in Tehran that cemented the power of its ruling shah over an elected prime minister.
Iranian Revolution – a timeline of events Image via Brookings Institute
In a Defense Department statement, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that the United States killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier that week.
Iran’s supreme leader and state apparatus are trying to dually speak nationalist anger against foreign intervention and condemn the United States’ infringement in regional affairs in the court of public opinion. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the U.S. On the morning of January 8, Iran launched six ballistic missiles at Al-assad air base in Iraq where US troops and personnel are stationed. There were no reported casualties, despite Iran reportedly televising that the strikes had killed dozens of Americans. Iraqi soil has become a symbolic, political, and increasingly real battleground between Iran and the United States as both vie for influence over the fourth largest country in the Middle East, which controls massive swaths of natural resources, historical sites, and has been on the verge of failing as a state for almost two decades.
Iran has attempted to leverage its growing influence over a weakened neighboring Iraq in order to maintain a regional balance of power against Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni-majority countries, as well as establish itself as a significant state in world affairs vis-à-vis the western powers. In order to accomplish this task, it has undertaken actions such as the diplomatic weapon of urging members of Iraqi parliament to vote for an ouster of the United States troops stationed in the country. These troops, numbering over 5,000, were invited to the country in 2014 by Iraq to help combat the Islamic State, who had overrun one third of the country as well as established substantial holdings across Syria. Iran has also indicated it will pull out of the 2015 nuclear agreement, compelling the European countries still trying to maintain the accord. Specifically, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France triggered a mechanism in place to put Iran on notice that it is progressing dangerously down the path towards renewed United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – imposed sanctions. While the European powers party to this accord have spoken out against Iran’s nuclear program, it remains to be seen if Russia and China, the other two key signatories of the deal, will add their leverage to compel Iran to maintain in the parameters of the nuclear deal.
Reaction in the United States has been mixed, with a number of considerations unfolding in a hotly contested election year, in which incumbent and freshly impeached Donald Trump is battling a slate of Democratic candidates. On the one hand, congressional hawks and military advisers close to the President applauded the use of deadly force to kill an enemy of the state that the United States has verifiable evidence of killing Americans and allied forces. President Trump said Sunday that his administration “may discuss” releasing the intelligence on Soleimani. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told “Face the Nation” that the administration would “do our best” to release evidence about what type of plot or plots Soleimani was allegedly planning against Americans. Releasing classified intelligence is a difficult decision for the Trump administration to navigate, as it could compromise sources and methods of intelligence, but also assuage the conscience of the United States Congress and the public that the actions were necessary. The President asserts that he has acted within his prerogative as Commander-in-chief, as he notified Congress about the drone strike as required by the War Powers Act. Democratic leaders in Congress however have balked at this claim, arguing that the President is putting the US on a track that subverts Congress’s mandate to approve taking the nation to war.
Reaction in Iraq has been unsettling to the United States observers. The Iraqi Parliament approved a resolution calling on the government to expel those 5,000 U.S. troops from the country. President Trump has indicated it would be a very harsh break-up if the Iraqi government did ask the United States to leave its soil. The President spoke of harsh sanctions that the United States could impose on Iraq that would cripple its economy. He also indicated that the United States troops would not evacuate the base that the US had sunk billions of dollars into building, unless they were paid back in full. All of this grandstanding may be a moot point, as the Iraqi resolution calling for the US to leave is not legally binding, and judicial scholars argue that the caretaker Prime Minister in Iraq has no authority to expel the troops, or if he did would need to give one year’s notice, it is still unsettling for the United States to have such tensions with a critical ally in the Middle East.
These events are still developing, so a number of scenarios are still possible depending on the extent of escalation from Iran or the United States. On the one hand, tensions could evaporate quickly, avoiding further conflict. On the other hand, both countries could engage in further attacks, potentially involving regional and global allies in a more militarized situation. The following weeks will be crucial to knowing the future of US-Iran relations.