On Friday, January 3, 2020, an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq killed Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was the commander of the Quds force, which is a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard concerned with external affairs.
President Donald Trump ordered the drone strike and stated that “[Soleimani] was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.” President Trump explained that the order was meant to “stop a war” rather than start one.
On January 8, Iran fired missiles attacking two military bases in Iraq holding U.S. forces, though no casualties were reported. Since then, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that restricts the ability of President Trump to use the U.S. Armed Forces against Iran unless Congress declares war. On January 8, Iranian armed forces shot down a Ukranian airplane, killing 176 people. The military has since taken responsibility for the attack and stated that it was unintentional. President Hassan Rouhani later tweeted, “The Islamic Republic of Iran deeply regrets this disastrous mistake.”
The United States and Iran have a long history of tension, beginning with the 1953 coup orchestrated in conjunction with the British. The United States and Britain overthrew the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, whose attempt to nationalize the Iranian oil industry would disadvantage the British, and reinstated Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Between 1963 and 1973, the two states built an alliance as nuclear technology became available. It was around this time that Iran developed a civil nuclear program. The deposition of Shah Pahlavi in the 1979 Iranian Revolution began the decline of relations between the United States and Iran as the U.S. lost their ally in the Iranian government. Following the Revolution, Iranian students took 66 American diplomats and Marines hostage from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. In retaliation, President Carter imposed sanctions on Iran, and the relationship between the two nations became one of mutual mistrust.
In 2015, the United States, Iran, and several other countries signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which intended to limit Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. The agreement relieved Iran from economic sanctions in exchange for allowing foreign inspectors access into their nuclear facilities.
Since Soleimani’s death, tens of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in mourning. At the funeral, Iranians began chanting “Death to America,” a phrase that gained popularity in Iran after the Revolution.
In response to the death, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani claimed that the United States would face consequences “not only today, but also in the coming years.” On January 5, Iranian media announced the government’s decision to disregard a key component of the JCPOA. The statement declares that “the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program no longer faces any operational restrictions, including enrichment capacity, percentage of enrichment, amount of enriched material, and research and development. From here on, Iran’s nuclear program will be developed solely based on its technical needs.”
“We can say America, Mr. Trump, has taken action directly against us — so we take direct action against America,” stated Major General Hossein Dehghan, the military advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini.
President Trump responded to the threats from Iranian leaders by tweeting, “let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have………targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”
Many politicians and organizations, including the Human Rights Watch (HRW), have called out President Trump, arguing that he is threatening a war crime against Iran. Representatives of the HRW have pointed out that Article 53 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibits the threats made by the tweets. The Article states that “to commit any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples” is prohibited.
As both the United States and Iran have issued threats since the death, the Department of Homeland Security has detained many Iranian-Americans who were trying to re-enter the country. They detained over 60 travelers returning to the United States from Canada and questioned them about their political allegiances. On January 4, the Department of Homeland Security updated the National Terrorism Advisory System to warn against “homeland-based plots” and “Homegrown Violent Extremists.”
While various spokesmen of Customs and Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security have denied the accusations, various advocacy organizations and attorneys have spoken out. Matt Adams of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project spent time at the port of entry in Seattle and stated “they are going after anyone with Iranian heritage.”
David Sanger, a national security correspondent for The New York Times, believes that the killing will reverse any possibility of removing U.S. troops from the Middle East. “Mr. Trump has committed the United States to a conflict whose dimensions are unknowable, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeks vengeance,” wrote Sanger.
Several experts on the laws of war consider the order and killing to be illegal. Executive Order 11905, issued by President Ford, prohibits political assassination. The dispute concerns whether the killing of Soleimani constitutes an assassination.
Gary Solis, a former marine and professor on the laws of war, argued that the killing would be best characterized as an assassination. He claimed that the attack is similar to Iran killing a dignified U.S. official with an attack in the United States.
In contrast, law professor Ashley Deeks claimed that “A lawful killing during an armed conflict does not constitute an assassination.”
Upon questions of legality, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brian defended the strike, citing the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq. This authorization allows the President to use the Armed Forces of the United States as needed in order to protect the state from external threats, which in the case of this specific authorization refers only to Iraq.
According to General Vincent Brooks, the former Commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, this killing could have detrimental effects on the relationship between Iran and the United States. “To be sure, the game just changed. Expect chaos ahead,” stated General Brooks.
“America’s four decade long Cold War with Iran has entered a new and perilous phase,” explained Tarek Masoud, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
With Iran retracting from part of the 2015 nuclear agreement, it is possible that nuclear weapons will be developed much sooner than anticipated. Dr. Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi of the think-tank RUSI claims that if Iran no longer abides to the uranium restrictions, it is possible for them to develop nuclear weapons in under a year.
Gary Samore, the Senior Executive Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, warns that the conflict will have an enormous impact on Iraq, explaining that Iran will increase its role in Iraq as they try to force U.S. troops out of the region.
Martin Malin, the Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom, suggests that the killing will impact states across the Middle East. “The immediate response from Iran and its allies is going to be widespread and violent — potentially involving Iranian proxies from Lebanon to Iraq,” explained Malin. He also warned that Iran may involve other states who may share the common enemy of Israel.
“Iran’s conventional strength is no match for the U.S. But what it does have is an assortment of local allies, local proxies stretching from Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to Afghanistan,” explained Naysan Rafati of the International Crisis Group.
The House of Representatives passed a resolution on January 9 requiring the President to receive congressional approval before pursuing further military action against Iran. In defending the resolution, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated that “members of Congress have serious, urgent concerns about the administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran and about its lack of strategy moving forward.” Still, the majority of House Republicans continue to support President Trump’s decision in ordering the drone strike.
Since January 4, anti-war activists have organized thousands of protests across the country. Demonstrators in New York City chanted “No justice, no peace, U.S. out of the Middle East.”