President Donald Trump began 2020 by ordering a drone strike to kill Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, marking one of the most provocative moves either country has taken in a decades-long standoff.
Soleimani's assassination was not an isolated event; rather, it was a peak in a series of escalatory actions.
What is the deal with the U.S. and Iran?
In May of 2018, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, a landmark agreement orchestrated by the Obama administration in 2015 that was meant to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Relations between Washington and Tehran have deteriorated ever since the withdrawal.
In May, the US deployed military assets to the Middle East to counter threats from Iran. This was around the same time US sanctions meant to choke out Iran's oil revenue went into full effect.
Within weeks, oil tankers in the region were attacked, which the US blamed on Iran. The US said Iran used naval mines to sabotage the tankers. Iran also seized oil tankers, which further increased tensions.
In late June, Iran shot down a US Navy drone, which nearly prompted a military response from President Donald Trump. Trump called off the retaliatory strike at the last minute, however, stating it would not have been proportionate to the downing of an unmanned aircraft.
In the time since, the US has continued to issue economic sanctions as Trump has occasionally flirted with the idea of holding talks with Iran.
Iran in recent months took several major steps away from the 2015 nuclear deal orchestrated by the Obama administration, raising concerns among European countries who were also signatories to the crumbling agreement. Iran has taken such actions in an effort to gain leverage and relief from US sanctions, but has not had much success.
For a brief window, it seemed possible that Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani might meet to find a way to end the stalemate, but Iran has ruled out any talks unless the US lifts sanctions and returns to the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump pulled the US out of the deal in May 2018, and US-Iran relations have deteriorated ever since.
The situation escalated significantly following attacks on two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia on September 14, which disrupted the global oil supply. Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, but both the US and Saudi Arabia have implicated Tehran.
Top Republicans in Congress and key US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have described the incident as an act of war by Iran against Saudi Arabia. Former US officials and foreign policy experts say the signs point to Iran as the culprit, but neither Washington nor Riyadh have presented definitive evidence that Tehran is responsible for the oil field attacks.
Shortly after the incident, Trump tweeted that the US was "locked and loaded," indicating that a US military response could be on the horizon. He's since walked back on that somewhat, and said he's not interested in going to war. Trump has also issued new wave of sanctions against Iran in recent months.
But Trump is surrounded by advisers and politicians who are hawkish and fiercely anti-Iran, which is raising anxieties in Washington and beyond about the potential for conflict.
Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif on in September warned that a US or Saudi military strike against his country would lead to "all-out war."
"I make a very serious statement about defending our country. I am making a very serious statement that we don't want to engage in a military confrontation," Zarif told CNN. "We won't blink to defend our territory."
In late December, a rocket attack killed a US contractor and injured four US service members at a base in Kirkuk, which is in the northeastern part of Iraq. The US has blamed the deadly attack on Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia. The US retaliated with airstrikes that killed dozens of the militia's fighters. Subsequently, the US embassy in Baghdad was consumed by violent protests, prompting the US to send about 100 more Marines to the embassy for protection.
Trump explicitly blamed Iran for the violent protests at the embassy, and threatened Tehran in a tweet: "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!"
On the morning of January 2, Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned the US might conduct preemptive strikes on Iranian-backed militias. Esper said: "If we get word of attacks, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives. The game has changed."
As a result, on January 3, Trump gave the order for the strike that killed Soleimani as well as a powerful Iraqi militia leader. Later on the same day, the Pentagon confirmed that the US military, acting on the orders of the president, killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. "The US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force," the Pentagon said in a statement. The Trump administration has said the strike was meant to stop a war and was in response to intelligence point to an "imminent" attack, but has not publicly disclosed that intelligence.
Who was Soleimani? Why is he important?
Soleimani does not have a direct equivalent in the US political system, but he was Iran's most important military leader and widely considered the second most powerful figure in the country after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Suleimani was the longtime commander of Iran’s Quds Force, an external wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Suleimani played an important role in Iran’s national security decision making process — including weapons sales, training and financing armed groups in other Middle Eastern nations — and reported directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Suleimani’s strong influence and relationships with various militias and terrorist groups — which allowed Shiite-dominated Iran to build a network of non-state Shiite allies — helped expand Iran’s role in the region. His death, analysts said, is likely to result at some point in bloody retaliation.
Shortly after his death was announced publicly, the country of Iran went into mourning.
Why did Trump want him killed?
Trump told reporters Friday that he ordered the killing to prevent future attacks on Americans. The Department of Defense said in a recent statement that the reclusive commander was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
The Pentagon stated that Suleimani was behind an attack on a Kirkuk military installation in late December that resulted in the death of an American contractor and the wounding of four American troops.
Still, the question remains about who benefits from an attack that killed such a high-level figure.
The answer is quite controversial.
While some the attack was used to warn Iran against provoking war with the United States, others argue it was used as a way to distract Americans from current political matters such as the impeachment and 2020 election.
When the US government killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was first announced, officials from the Pentagon up to President Donald Trump were careful to make clear the strike was meant to head off an imminent attack on Americans.
That the strike, which took place last week without congressional approval or debate, should be conducted with the urgency of heading off an imminent threat is actually key to making it legal under US law. But Trump has subsequently made clear -- notably in comments Tuesday from the Oval Office -- that he was also motivated by retribution after the death of an American contractor at an Iraqi military base, possibly caused by Iranian-backed militias, or violent protests at the US Embassy in Baghdad.
Trump's Oval Office comments left out the idea of an imminent threat and echoed his arguments on a conservative radio show that the attack on Soleimani should have been carried out years ago, by either President Barack Obama or President George W. Bush, two men whose foreign policy Trump has repeatedly tried to undo.
Traditionally, a US president facing a major foreign policy crisis benefits from at least a short-term bump in public support.
The drama in the Middle East may also help the president by turning national attention away from his impeachment and looming Senate trial. That seemed to be on the president's mind in multiple tweets Monday morning.
"To be spending time on this political Hoax at this moment in our history, when I am so busy, is sad!" he wrote.
Killing a terrorist as a security matter is one thing. Killing another country's general as part of a policy agenda is something else entirely. According to CNN's reporting, top officials who briefed Trump were surprised that he decided to strike Soleimani, who was visiting Iraq, because it was the most severe option presented to him.
But regardless Soleimani's killing could lead to war, even if it was an attempt to disrupt a terror threat. On Tuesday night, Iran responded with force, launching more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi bases that hold US troops in what appears to be an act of retaliation.
Since those first public announcements about the strike, officials have refused to provide evidence of an imminent attack and instead have argued that Soleimani's previous actions meant he would continue to act the same way and that eliminating him was part of a larger strategy.
Does this mean we are on the path to war? What would war look like?
Iran has vowed to enact "severe revenge" and withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal as Trump has warned any retaliation will be met by the US striking 52 Iranian targets. Trump said the US would hit "Iranian culture" sites, which could amount to a war crime, but his advisers have undermined him on this.
Both Trump and Iran have a history of making serious threats without following up on them, and no one can say with certainty what happens next.
Recent events might have some young people worried that the U.S. is marching toward war with Iran — “World War III” started trending on social media after Suleimani’s death was announced.
But the reality is that a direct conflict remains unlikely; even though the risk of miscalculation by the U.S. and Iran might be higher these days than in the past, neither side wants to end up in a direct conflict, Tabatabai said.
However, if war were to occur, the results would be horrific and catastrophic.
What could a war look like?
A war with Iran would potentially be more calamitous than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, bogged the US down in a costly and lengthy war, and helped catalyze the rise of the Islamic State group.
Iran has a population of about 82 million people, and its military is ranked as the 14th most powerful. According to recent estimates, Iran has 523,000 active military personnel in addition to 250,000 reserve personnel.
Comparatively, Iraq had a population of about 25 million people, and the Iraqi military had fewer than 450,000 personnel when the US invaded over a decade ago.
Iran is also much bigger than Iraq geographically. It has 591,000 square miles of land versus Iraq's 168,000 square miles, and its influence has grown as the power of its rival Iraq collapsed in the wake of the US war there.
If the US launched an attack against Iran, it would also reverberate across the Middle East. Iran has proxies throughout the region and is allied with militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. A revised Pentagon estimate released in April found Iranian proxy forces killed at least 608 US troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
Moreover, Iran shares a border with a number of countries the US considers allies and has a military presence in, including Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan. None of these countries are especially stable at the moment, as they all continue to deal with ongoing conflicts and their consequences (including millions of displaced people).
In terms of other geopolitical blowback, Iran is allied with Russia and China, and it's unclear how these major powers might react if conflict breaks out. Key US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are adversaries of Iran and just a stone's throw away from it, would also likely get sucked into a US-Iran war.
A war with Iran could also be extraordinarily disruptive economically, given it borders the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow route that roughly one-third of the world's oil-tanker traffic travels through. Experts have predicted that if the route were blocked, it would quickly lead to a 30% drop in daily global oil exports, and prices would rapidly go up, The Washington Post reported.
Iran's forces would likely be defeated by the US but could exact a heavy toll with cruise missiles, naval mines, and fighter jets. Any troops that survive could blend into the population and lead a brutal insurgency against the US occupation force. That was the scenario that unfolded for the US in Iraq, a country one-third the size of Iran, and proved to be an insurmountable challenge.
In short, though the US has a military that is consistently ranked the most powerful, evidence suggests a war with Iran would be devastating in myriad ways.
What does all of this mean for our future?
It’s hard to predict the future, but the safe bet is that the next few weeks could continue to be rocky.
While tensions continue to fester, little progress is being made. At the moment, the possibility of war is uncertain, and how the strained relations will play out can not yet be determined; however, what can predicted are the long lasting effects of poor. As patterns in U.S. foreign policy post-Cold War have shown, engaging in any sort of way, has had devastating impacts.
After nearly three years in office, President Donald Trump has managed to increase the risk of war, push Iran to gradually restart its nuclear program, provoke Iraq into asking the United States to prepare to leave, raise serious doubts about U.S. judgment and reliability, alarm allies in Europe, and make Russia and China look like fonts of wisdom and order. The Trump administration has made it clear that it thinks assassinating foreign officials is a legitimate tool of foreign policy and that war criminals should be lionized, a move that has begun to weaken trust among our allies.
While war is very unlikely, there are many other ways this tension could affect us.
First, Iran has left the nuclear agreement. In July 2015, Iran and six countries reached a historic agreement called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal.
The six major powers involved in these negotiations with Iran were known as the P5+1, which stands for the United Nations security council's five permanent members (the US, France, the UK, China, and Russia) and Germany. The deal came together after two years of intense discussions and aimed to restrict Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting economic sanctions against Tehran.
As part of the deal, Iran agreed to reduce its number of centrifuges — tube-shaped machines that help enrich uranium — by two-thirds. It also agreed to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98% and limit uranium enrichment to 3.67%.
In other words, Tehran agreed to restrictions that would allow it to have enough enriched uranium to maintain the country's energy needs, without having the ability to build a nuclear bomb.
On top of this, Iran agreed to give access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, to its nuclear facilities, among other facilities. The IAEA has repeatedly found Iran to be complying with the terms of the pact.
The deal virtually collapsed entirely following Trump's decision to order a deadly strike on Soleimani.
In the days that followed the strike, the Iranian government said it will no longer comply with any of the limits of the deal, including restrictions on uranium enrichment, its amount of stockpiled uranium, and research and development.
This move could be perceived as the country taking a big step toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. Critics of Trump say that his decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has unnecessarily sparked a global crisis and increased the prospect of war.
"There is a direct line you can draw from Trump's violation of the Iran deal and the risk of conflict today," Jon Wolfsthal, who served as the nuclear expert for the National Security Council under Obama.
This has also created implications in the Middle East.
The logic behind Trump’s killing of Soleimani — that America needs to respond forcefully to Iranian provocations to deter it from future attacks — would dictate a harsh response to any such provocations. In fact, it would commit the US to hitting Iran repeatedly if (or, more likely, when) it engages in anti-American military activities.
So long as both sides are committed to using force in this fashion, the conditions that led to this latest flare-up in violence are still there. While the immediate cause for panic may have passed, the situation remains unstable.
US officials in the Middle East don’t feel too confident that the government has their back. One diplomat serving in the region who recently asked to relocate told me the American response “feels unplanned and made up,” adding that if Iran decides to attack US outposts in earnest and with rockets, “we are probably fucked.”
Dwindling US diplomatic and military presence could correlate with declining US influence in Iraq, which would be a boon for Iran. Experts say Iran has long had aims of turning its neighbor into a pseudo-client.
That’s partly why Iran won’t take kindly to the US sending 3,000 more troops to the Middle East as a show of force toward Iran. They may not land in Iraq, but it’s another sign to the Islamic Republic that its aims in Baghdad and elsewhere might be met with stiff resistance.
Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country’s top goal now is to force US troops out of the Middle East, though it’s unclear how Iran plans to do that.
So current US-Iran tensions — and particularly Soleimani’s killing — could lead to all complications for the Trump administration short of war. Killing Soleimani “is likely to be a strategic failure even if it was tactically and operationally sound,” Wasser said.
Right now the U.S. is caught between what would be best for our national security. On one hand, pulling troops out would help de escalate the current situation with Iran, but it would also provide a pathway for the Islamic State to surge.
While the war in Iraq officially ended in 2011, when former President Barack Obama ordered the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops, 17 years after the U.S. invasion that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains in a fragile state.
About 5,000 U.S. and coalition troops have been redeployed to the country to combat the Islamic State terror organization, an extremist Sunni group that capitalized on the chaos unleashed in Iraq by the U.S. invasion and, later, the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Across the broader Middle East region, the U.S. has more than 62,00 troops deployed in various countries ranging from NATO member Turkey to the tiny Gulf state Bahrain.
Iraq and Iran share almost 900 miles of borders and Iraq is heavily dependent on Iran for its energy supply. The many armed militias in Iraq are often closer to Iran than to the Iraqi government – making it potentially perilous to alienate Tehran. A U.S. withdrawal could pave the way for a resurgence of the Islamic State group.
It would be a "gift to ISIS," Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said.
Washington's current with Iran crisis has put Iraq "in the eye of the storm" at the worst possible moment, said Abbas Kadhim, head of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq initiative and a former Iraqi diplomat.
The current prime minister is on his way out of office, and the current government is operating with "truncated authorities," Kadhim noted at a foreign policy forum in Washington on Thursday. The population is divided, and leaders are struggling to chart a path forward amid a political crisis.
With a history of spontaneous and rash foreign interventions, predicting the future of this situation is difficult, but we can continue to hope that leaders in both countries will find middle ground and take steps to lead towards deescalation.