Too Afraid To Ask: Iran and Quassem Soleimani
Are we about to enter World War 3? Will there be a draft? Who is Quassem Soleimani? These questions were widely circulated on January 3 as the hashtags #WorldWar3 and #NoWarWithIran trended on Twitter after the Trump administration launched a series of strikes that killed several leaders of Iraqi militant groups and Quassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s parliamentary forces. The questions caused the website for the Selective Service System, the independent government agency that registers eligible Americans for the draft, to crash. The attack was just one in a series of escalating conflicts between the two countries, but the fallout left many worrying about the potential of war as tensions reached a breaking point.
So who is Qassem Soleimani and why did the US kill him?
Soleimani was the leader of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a secretive and elite force that specializes in foreign military intelligence operations. He had been the mastermind behind nearly every significant Iranian intelligence and military operation in the past 20 years, causing the U.S. to designate him a terrorist. According to the Pentagon, the attack was carried out because Soleimani was developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members throughout the region (Both President Barack Obama and George W. Bush had the opportunity to take Soleimani out, but decided that it wasn’t worth the risk).
What led to this moment?
Iran and the U.S. have a long history of tense relations, dating back to the 1950s when the U.S. helped orchestrate a coup to take over the Iranian government, resulting in a brutal dictatorship. The animosity continued following the overthrow of the U.S.-imposed government when Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in 1979 (something Trump alluded to with his threat to attack 52 Iranian cultural sites). In the 1980s, Iran, through proxy forces, bombed U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 U.S. service members, and the U.S. shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, misidentifying it as an attacking fighter jet, killing 290 passengers.
More recently, in May 2018, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran Nuclear Deal, the landmark agreement Obama negotiated that relaxed sanctions on Iran’s oil sector but set tight limits on nuclear activities. With it, Trump reimposed economic sanctions on Iran due to terrorism threats and growing missile problems. The sanctions have severely lowered Iran’s oil exports, the country’s largest source of income. In the past weeks, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias killed a U.S. contractor at a base in northern Iraq and just days before the airstrike, citizens hurled stones and demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, where the U.S. fired tear gas back.
What has happened since?
In response to the attacks, Iran launched attacks on two U.S. military bases in Iraq. Iran fired 15 missiles at the two bases, with 10 striking al-Asad airbase west of Baghdad, one striking Erbil in northern Iraq, and four failing. There were no fatalities. The U.S. told its citizens to get out of Iraq, citing “heightened tensions,” without acknowledging that their airstrike is what caused them. The Iraqi parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the U.S.’s 5,000 troops stationed in the country to leave, which Trump brushed off.
Perhaps the greatest crisis in the days that followed was caused when a Boeing passenger jet bound for Ukraine crashed shortly after taking off from the airport in Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. Iranian officials initially claimed the crash was due to mechanical problems and blamed the U.S., but later admitted that it was shot down after it “took the flying posture and altitude of an enemy target” and was a result of human error. In response, the FAA has barred U.S. airlines from flying over Iran or Iraq.
Relations between the two countries will likely be rocky for a while as both sides determine how to respond, but for now, at least, the threat of World War 3 seems to be a little more distant.