How the United States’ assassination of a major general led to uproar in Iran and, eventually, uneasy peace
By Lydia Switzer
On January 3, a United States airstrike assassinated General Qasem Soleimani of Iran, beginning a chain reaction of retaliations. Today, however, there remains an uneasy peace.
Opposing interests between the United States and Iran have led to decades of violence. The first two weeks of 2020 demonstrated a spike in the ongoing conflict between the two countries, both having significant influence in their respective regions and around the world.
The story begins with a different airstrike: New Year’s Day in Iraq rang in with ongoing protests in response to a U.S. airstrike on Iraqi militia that killed 25. The protestors stormed the United States embassy in Baghdad, resulting in significant damage. As the Iraqi militia is backed by the Iranian government, President Trump (@realDonaldTrump) indicated on Twitter that he would hold Iran responsible: “…Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities. They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!”
Three days after the protests began, another United States airstrike killed Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As justification for Soleimani’s killing, the Trump administration cited an imminent attack that Soleimani was allegedly planning, which has yet to be corroborated.
According to Dr. Glen Duerr, associate professor of International Studies at Cedarville University, the United States’ foreign policy justification for Soleimani’s death was similar to that of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Iran is designated by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism, along with North Korea, Sudan and Syria. Though Soleimani was not, like Osama bin Laden, a member of a major terrorist group, Duerr believes that the United States used the classification as justification for a killing strike.
“It [was] risky in a sense,” said Duerr. “[Soleimani] was so tied to the Iranian regime and was a general in the military … it changes the ground game in the Middle East.”
The worldwide response to Soleimani’s death was mixed. Thousands in Iran and Iraq gathered to mourn Soleimani’s death in an enormous funeral procession. Soleimani was the second-most powerful man in Iran and a major facet of their government. Though it would be an overstep to say he was a national hero, most Iranians respected him. However, on social media, a video of Iraqis celebrating Soleimani’s death went viral, and various public officials in countries such as Yemen and Jordan also expressed their support for the killing of Soleimani.
Duerr said this mixed response can be attributed to the dichotomy between Iran’s younger and older populations. Over 60 percent of Iran’s population is under 30 years old and played a major role in political protests in the past, such as the Green Movement.
“I think a lot of [the youth] are like you and I. They want to live in a country where they can say what they want,” Duerr said.
Just two days after the attack that killed Soleimani, Iran announced it would no longer comply by the rules of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. This signifies that Iran will not be limited in nuclear production. President Trump had pulled the United States out of the deal in May of 2018, calling it “one-sided.”
Iran also swiftly responded to the US with a missile strike on bases in Iraq housing United States soldiers.
“Iran wanted, for a domestic audience, to be able to say that they responded. And they did,” Duerr said.
Although there were no casualties, President Trump announced that there would be further economic sanctions on Iran in retaliation for this attack. Trump also threatened to attack Iranian cultural sites, which the international community condemned as it would be a violation of international law.
These economic sanctions have caused many Iranians to “feel the pinch,” as Dr. Duerr put it. However, the effects of sanctions have been offset in some ways by the actions of the Obama administration in repaying money owed to Iran in the amount of 1.7 billion in unmarked dollars.
On January 8, one of the missiles fired by Iran hit a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board. Iranian officials did not fully accept responsibility until January 11, where they explained that the plane had been flying over a military base and was mistaken for an attacking missile.
The tension between the two nations escalated throughout the first two weeks of 2020, which caused many to believe that a larger scale conflict was in store. Some on social media even referred to a possible World War III in the near future. Young people especially flooded the internet with memes indicating their uncertainty and fear with a tinge of dark humor. However, today, the status of Iran and the U.S. has de-escalated from a potentially dangerous situation.
Duerr suggested that this de-escalation is the result of both sides “looking for an exit ramp off the highway.”
Iran’s refusal to further comply with the JCPOA is also a lesser issue than many believe, according to Duerr.
“The Trump administration has left in waivers, so it’s not dead. Trump tends to make a lot of noise and then look for concessions,” Duerr said. “That might be his angle on Iran – he might circle back to them at some point.”
Although the situation is currently peaceful, there are several events that have the potential to alter the equilibrium. President Trump has recently announced his Middle East Peace Plan, which includes a Two-State Solution for Israel and Palestine. Although Palestine has wanted acknowledgment as a state, the Peace Plan is significantly restrictive of Palestinians and the land allotted to Palestine is small compared to Israel. There is a possibility for a strong negative reaction from Iran, which supports Palestine.
Furthermore, upcoming elections in the United States in November of this year, and also Iran in 2021, open up the potential for entirely new dynamics between the two countries, with Vice President Joe Biden and Iranian candidate Parmiz Fattah both advocating for foreign policy changes in their platforms.
Lydia Switzer is a sophomore Political Science student. When she is not studying, she enjoys playing the euphonium in Cedarville’s Wind Symphony and competing with the debate team.