2019 saw some significant flare ups between the US and Iran. But an operation on 3rd January 2020 greatly accelerated the conflict between the two countries. Early that morning, the US killed Iran’s chief security and intelligence officer, and leader of the elite Quds Force, Major General Qassim Soleimani. This happened in a drone attack near the Baghdad airport in Iraq. Shockwaves from this event are likely to be felt all over the world. Let’s take a look at what happened and why.
The Attack: Major General Soleimani’s convoy (a group of vehicles travelling together) was attacked on a road near Baghdad’s international airport. Amongst others killed in the blast were Soleimani’s brother in-law and the formidable Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilisation Forces (an Iraqi organization comprising of 40 militias groups).
Who was Major General Soleimani? The Major General was the 62-year-old leader of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a position he held since 1998. The Quds Force is in charge of Iranian missions in other countries. These include covert (undercover or secret) operations as well. For over 20 years, Soleimani had steadily increased Iran’s influence across the region, in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. He was also involved in training fighters to combat the terrorist group ISIS. The Major General was known to be extremely close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and was often referred to as the unofficial second-in-command.
Why was he targeted? President Trump told the media that “Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel [in the Middle East], but we caught him in the act and terminated him.” and “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that killing Soleimani was a necessary act of self-defence.
Why did the US feel threatened? Tensions between the US and Iran have run high, with the US pulling out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and imposing very high sanctions on the country. Iran has been retaliating with some drone strikes and some attacks on US bases in the region.
Iran’s reaction: Unsurprisingly, Iran had an extreme and loud reaction to the killing. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed harsh revenge for the ‘criminals’ who killed Soleimani. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif defined the attack as an act of “international terrorism.” Iran shot off a letter to the United Nations stating that it reserved the right under international law to self-defence and that it would also take legal action against America. In response, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “maximum restraint” to de-escalate tensions.
In Iran’s capital Tehran, massive demonstrations were taken out over the killing. In Soleimani’s hometown of Kerman, people wearing black gathered outside his home in sympathy and protest.
How did the world react? The Prime Minister of Iraq, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, on whose territory the attack took place, said the killing was an “aggression against Iraq.” Many felt that the roughly 5,000 US troops stationed in the country should be expelled immediately. If this were to happen, it would severely affect the US influence in the region. The Iraqis had no knowledge that the US was planning the attack and feel that they are being drawn into a conflict that they are not involved in.
In an expected reaction, Israel, the US’s long-time ally praised President Trump’s decision to act against Soleimani. Conversely, Syria called the attack “a treacherous American criminal aggression”. China, India, Russia and most European countries expressed extreme concern on any further aggressions between the two countries and advised both to proceed with caution and restraint.
In the US, Democrats noted that President Trump had not consulted Congress before the airstrike and they are concerned that it has increased chances of a full-blown war.
What could the fallout be? With Iran promising revenge, there is great tension in the region and around the world. Iran could respond with force as there are several US troops (more than 40,000 are stationed in bases around the Middle East) and targets (warships and military aircraft) in the Persian Gulf area. The US has also said that the plans Soleimani had in place could still be carried out by others and the country is on high alert and is sending 3,000 more troops to the Middle East. They have ordered the US embassy in Iraq to shut and told all its citizens to evacuate as soon as possible.
Economically, because the Middle East is the most significant oil-producing region, any such event immediately affects the price of oil which increase by $3 a barrel. This hike can affect the prices of goods all over the world as it increases transport costs.
What next? There are no certainties. As we write this article, there were new airstrikes that targeted a medical convoy of the Popular Mobilization Forces near Taji, Iraq. The group said none leaders were killed and the US deny involvement in this strike.
Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant. She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.