Tensions spike between US, Iran following Soleimani’s assassination

Tensions between the United States and Iran following the U.S.-led airstrike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3 continue to mount, as new information comes to light and the world waits to see what will happen next.

Gregory Mark, law professor and former associate counsel for the Office of Independent Counsel in the Iran-Contra affair, said the Trump administration justified the strike on the basis of “imminent threats.”

“The administration has also not elaborated, or at least has not elaborated publicly on why eliminating the commander would necessarily make it impossible or less likely for Iran to carry out whatever threats or might be,” Mark said.

A Jan. 2 statement by the Department of Defense stated that  “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he didn’t see specific evidence of these threats, specifically that of plans to attack four U.S. embassies.

Soleimani led the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force – an organization that handles Iran’s overseas operations and was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S government in April.

Scott Hibbard, associate political science professor at DePaul University, said Soleimani was a “key player” in helping Iran influence Iraq through his support of various militias following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“These militias were part of the insurgency fighting the American occupation,” Hibbard said. “Now the larger part of the insurgency were the Sunni militants, which killed more Americans than Shia did but. But nonetheless, you know, one can argue that Soleimani had American blood on his hands because of his support for these militias. Now it does beg the larger question: how much blood does America have on its hands?”

Karim Pakravan, instructor in DePaul’s Department of Economics, specializes in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Pakravan said relations between the U.S. and Iran have experienced periods of conflict and close cooperation throughout history – most recently over ISIS. 

“There was however a degree of cooperation between Iran and the United States over ISIS,” Pakravan said. “And Iran actually actually was instrumental in helping that effort defeating ISIS especially in Iraq and the battle for Mosul.”

Trump quickly took to Twitter in a series of tweets that vowed significant military action against 52 cultural Iranian sites if the nation were to retaliate in any way against America.

Hibbard said at this point it is unclear what any potential retaliation will look like.

“There’s a 40-day period of mourning within the Shia tradition and at the fortieth day there’s a celebration or kind of a commemoration of the death of a person,” Hibbard said. “And so the assumption is that there’s probably not going to be much retaliation, if anything, until after that.”  

On Jan. 5, the nation abandoned limitations on their uranium enrichment – a key point in their 2015 nuclear agreement with six nations, including the United States. 

Iran launched 22 ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing US soldiers on Jan. 7, only increasing fears of further conflict between the two nations. No American or Iraqi causalities were reported in the bombings.

Mark said the incident increased concern about further escalation between the two nations. 

“It caused a number of people who are concerned about Iran and a number of people who want to support the president called this an act of war,” Mark said. “How they particularly distinguish that as an act of war from a drone attack on a general something that I don’t quite understand. But it gave people an out to suggest that Iran was in fact being bellicose military. They are not the ones who want to escalate.”

A Ukrainian plane was shot down over Tehran on Jan. 8. While circumstances surrounding the crash – which killed 176 people – were initially unclear, Iran took responsibility for unintentionally shooting down the aircraft on Saturday.

“Armed Forces’ internal investigation has concluded that regrettably, missiles fired due to human error caused the horrific crash of the Ukrainian plane & death of 176 innocent people,” President Hassan Rouhani said on Twitter.

Pakravan said while Soleimani had  large influence in Iran’s affairs, his death did not have as much of an impact on the Quds Force – as they have already named his successor, General Esmail Ghaani.

“General Soleimani was not only the head of the Quds Force but he also had tremendous influence inside Iran,” Pakravan said. “And now the fact that he has been killed is not going to change the basic parameters of Iran’s desire to sort of have regional influence.”

Mark said Soleimani’s death was also significant because of the relationships he maintained with “people in the highest leadership in the Iranian regime.”

“The reason his death is significant because it is twofold,” Mark said. “Not simply because of how sensitive the Iranian leadership might be, but because it without knowing the intelligence that was behind the attack it seems to have come out of the blue for the vast majority of observers.”

Kaveh Ehsani, a DePaul international studies professor, said tensions between Iranians and the government were high, especially following December protests against austerity measures, but have seemed to improve following Soleimani’s death.

“There was widespread anger among the Iranian population toward the regime for its policies and actions,” Ehsani said. “However, popular outrage at the US assassination of Soleimani changed the sentiment and seems to have revived support for a regime whose legitimacy was being questioned.”

Pakravan said the unification is adverse to the intent behind Soleimani’s assassination.  

“The point is right now that the killing of this general has unified the various forces in Iran at least and strengthened the hand of the hardliners,” Pakravan said. “Which is actually the opposite of what this policy was supposed to achieve.”

Hibbard said the move also strengthened the relationship between the Iranian and Iraqi governments while simultaneously highlighting shortcomings of the Trump administration.

“We’ve strengthened the Iranian regime and we’ve pushed the Iranian regime and the Iraqi government closer together,” Hibbard said. “All counterproductive. In my mind it highlights the fact that there is no policy process within the Trump administration and President Trump has no strategic vision for the region.”