On January 3rd, President Donald Trump authorised a drone strike outside Baghdad International Airport in Iraq that resulted in the death of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, sending the international community reeling. The United States has been caught in a vicious cycle of violence and retaliation within the Middle East for several decades, involved in a plethora of seemingly never-ending conflicts. For the vast majority of concerned American citizens who aren’t foreign affairs experts, engaging in discourse surrounding Soleimani can be difficult. We are forced to sift through World War III memes as we grapple with how desensitized we’ve become to constant U.S military interference in the Middle East, left wondering: who is Qassem Soleimani, and why does he matter?
Even in death, General Qasse, Soleimani remains one of the most powerful men in Iran. Hundreds of people flooded the streets of Tehran for his funeral, chanting ‘Death to America,’ as the newly appointed leader of Iran’s elite Qud Forces vowed to avenge his predecessor. The Qud Forces are a secretive branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corp, responsible for carrying out many of Iran’s foreign policy goals and expanding Iranian influence abroad. They actively train and support paramilitary forces in Iraq that are fighting ISIS, while simultaneously backing militia groups in Syria aligned with President Bashar Al-Assad, who is infamous for using chemical weapons on his own citizens. This has led to uncertainty regarding whether or not Soleimani should be considered an ‘enemy’ of the United States- his primary goal has always been to exert Iranian influence abroad, and sometimes his foreign policy goals happen to align with those of the United States (such as when Soleimani worked with the U.S military in 2001 to target the Taliban). Other times, however, his goals do not align with those of the United States.
The United States and Iran have a long, rocky history that includes the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979, in which fifty-two American diplomats were held hostage in the U.S Embassy in Tehran by protestors who believed the U.S was interfering in their revolution (which resulted in the ousting of an Iranian Shah who was granted amnesty in the United States). President Donald Trump took to Twitter to warn 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).” The assasination was partly in response to the storming of the U.S Embassy in Baghdad- an act allegedly coordinated by General Soleimani himself following a series of U.S airstrikes against Iranian backed militias in Iraq. The situation is incredibly complex, with the United States and Iran in a constant cycle of retaliation.
Qassem Soleimani’s assasination is highly divisive. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed: “There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleiman. We don’t know precisely when, and we don’t know precisely where, but it was real.” The Iranian general has been compared to Osama Bin Laden as supporters of the Trump Admnistration insist that even if Soleimani wasn’t an immediate threat, his assasination was nonetheless justified due to his past acts of ‘terrorism’ and escalation, including the attack on the U.S Embassy in Baghdad, the killing of a U.S contractor in Iraq by an Iranian backed militia, and the targeting of oil facilities and tankards throughout the Middle East. Killing Soleimani, according to Trump, was the most effective way to deter Iran from continuing to target U.S interests and foster instability in the Middle East through militis and proxy organizations.
However, Trump has failed to identify the ‘imminent threat,’ which has led to experts calling the legality of the assination into question. Others insist that Soleimani’s assasination will not deter Iran from attacking American assets. Anti-American sentiment has existed in Iran for decades due to the perception of the United States being an imperialist actor- this, coupled with the fact that many Iranians revered General Soleimani, will not paint the United States in a favourable light. Donald Trump has already inflamed tensions by withdrawing from the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions that had been lifted as a condition of the agreement.
Donald Trump has been criticized for perpetuating an endless war in the Middle East, and the most pressing question at the moment is: what next? Iranian officials have explicitly stated that they have no intentions of targeting the American public in revenge attacks, but have vowed to exact revenge on Donald Trump and his administration. Despite what the World War III memes tell you, in the unlikely scenario of Iran and the United States going to war, it’s very unlikely that it’ll ever reach American soil. It’s difficult, however, to predict how Iran will respond to Trump’s largest act of aggression to date.