On January 3rd, 2020, President Trump ordered airstrikes to the Baghdad International Airport and successfully killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
Soleimani, loved by the Iranian people and hailed as a national hero, was the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, an elite unit that handled Iran’s overseas operations. In April of 2019, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was determined as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S, as trump sought to place pressure on the Iranian regime.
In defense of the necessity of the airstrike, the United States Defense Department stated that Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq,” accused Soleimani of orchestrating attacks on American-Iraqi bases, and previously providing Iraqi insurgents with bombs which led to the deaths of many American soldiers.
The death of Iran’s beloved general led to public outrage towards the United States and President Trump. In retaliation over their loss, Iran launched a missile attack at Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops on January 8th, 2020. However, Iraq was warned by Iran about the attack in advance, and the incident held no casualties.
Despite this, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told cheering crowds in Tehran that the attack was a crushing blow to American forces. In reality, Iran had most likely sent these missiles intending to create an impression of a fearsome front more than anything. The two bases Iran had chosen to attack were vast and remote and, had Iran’s intention been to kill American soldiers, there were other bases with more soldiers that were easier targets.
However, a recent tweet from President Trump implies that the retaliatory attack was expected, and rather than fight back, open hostilities between Iran and the U.S. are subsiding for now. Regional officials have stated that the Trump administration intends to continue pressuring Iran without pushing the region into a new volatile confrontation. Instead of retaliation, senior officers urge Trump to stand firm, continue imposing economic sanctions, and wait to see if European leaders move to impose United Nations sanctions for Iran violating a nuclear containment deal.
Iran appears to have the same sentiments of avoiding confrontation, as Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, posted a tweet stating, “we do not seek escalation or war but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” Other Iranian officials have said that there was no need for further strikes unless the U.S. makes the first move and further escalates the situation.
Although the Iranian government is taking the high road in terms of avoiding confrontation, the lack of military response actually plays to their advantage, as the country is currently preoccupied with internal problems, including an increasingly grim economy. More than one in four young Iranians are jobless, the prices for basic necessities are skyrocketing, and inflation has hit 40%. As a result of tight U.S. sanctions President Trump reimposed in 2018, Iran is cut off from the international market and potential overseas investors. Active hostilities with the United States would only worsen the situation, weakening the Iranian currency and further increasing inflation. Both these factors could send more Iranian companies into distress, and cause even more joblessness.
Back in 2015, President Obama made a deal with the Iranian leadership to remove sanctions in exchange for the promise to dismantle large sections of its nuclear program. However, President Trump abandoned the 2015 deal back in 2018, reimposed these sanctions, and even made them more severe. New sanctions announced on June 24th, 2019 cut off all revenues from Iranian oil exports, further pressuring the nation’s leaders and its economy. With this, President Trump took a dangerous gamble – the prediction that Iranian leaders would surrender to American demands in exchange for economic relief.
As of now, the economic crisis has resulted in public anger towards the Iranian government over economic anxiety, joblessness, and corruption. Protests and public demonstrations of the people’s anger have even become violent. On November 15th, 2019, gasoline prices were declared to abruptly increase by 50%. In response to the announcement, angry protestors took to the street and called for an end to the Islamic Republic’s Government. In many areas, security forces were called and responded by opening fire on unarmed protestors. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps surrounded, shot, and killed at least 40-100 protestors. In total, the casualties resulted in about 180-450 dead.
In the midst of the Iranian public’s criticism of the government, Trump’s drone strike actually came in at the right time and relieved the Iranian leadership from that pressure. Public outrage was redirected to the United States as thousands mourned Soleimani, uniting the Iranians as a people against a common enemy. Soleimani’s death helped mute complaints about the economy and gave Iranian leadership time and space to redirect the accusations and anger.
Despite Iran’s lack of hostilities at the moment, their leaders may decide that confrontation with the U.S. is the only way to maintain power, pressure the U.S. into lifting sanctions, and quell public protests and rage. Yassamine Mather, a political economist at the University of Oxford says that “for the Iranian government, living in crisis is good… because you can blame all the economic problems on sanctions, or on the foreign threat of war. In the last couple of years, Iran has looked for adventures as a way of diverting attention from economic problems.” For now, U.S. and Iran relations have not yet escalated, but both nations are on their toes.
In addition to this, the American-Iran tensions prove to be something to celebrate for the IS (Islamic State group). Soleimani’s death was followed by a ten-day pause of the American-Iraqi coalition, and Iraq passed a motion demanding American withdrawal. However, most importantly, two of the IS militants’ enemies are now fighting one another. In this situation, the IS militants are briefly removed from the focus of both Iran and the U.S.. In addition to that, Jihadist extremists thrive when they can take advantage of the chaos. If America and Iran indeed go to war and each end up exhausting their military and resources, this may provide an important opportunity for the IS militias to take the upper hand.
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