Qassem Soleimani was Iran’s top general from 1998 – 2020. A US drone killed him and 54 others near Baghdad Airport on January 3rd 2020 on orders of the Pentagon and President Trump. The attack could be considered an act of war against Iran and has significantly escalated tensions between the two states. If worst comes to worst, history will remember him as the Franz Ferdinand of our time.
Soleimani led the Quds Force, the foreign branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. He was the country’s second most famous person after the Ayatollah and favoured by 82% of Iranians, according to a 2019 poll. Known for his calm and calculating demeanour, Soleimani had a knack for forging friendships amongst unlikely allies. He coordinated the alliance between Iran, Russia and Syria and allied Shia militias: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq.
Born poor in 1958, Soleimani supported the 1979 Revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran. He made a name for himself in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and by 1998 was leading the Quds Force. Soleimani led the fight against ISIS in Iraq by forging an unlikely alliance between the Iraqi military and Shia and Kurdish militias. With ISIS defeated, Iran contends with Saudi Arabia and the USA for influence over the region.
The US has considered assassinating Soleimani since 2003. Both Bush and Obama recognised his value to rival Iran but considered the implications too risky. Trump authorised the drone strike but did not consult Congress, legal only when responding to an ‘imminent threat’.
The attack was a culmination of a tit-for-tat feud between the US and Iran in Iraq:
- 27/12/19: PMF (Shia militia) attack a US-Iraqi base, killing one US contractor and two Iraqi soldiers
- 29/12/19: US airstrikes kill 25 PMF militiamen
- 31/12/19: PMF storm US Embassy in Baghdad. 0 casualties.
- 3/12/20: US drones kill Soleimani, the PMF’s second in command and 53 others
The current crisis began in 2018 when the USA pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, which would deter the USA from invading and bolster its international standing. Considering their ties to rivals Russia and China, and hatred for ally Israel, the US wants to stop that. Sanctions can slow the process, but only invasion can prevent it.
Iran’s leadership vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death. Hundreds of thousands attended his funeral in over eight cities, including his hometown of Kerman, where a stampede killed 80 mourners. President Trump responded via Twitter, threatening to bomb 52 sites of cultural significance if Iran retaliates. They did retaliate, but only with a symbolic missile strike on an American base in Iraq that killed no one. On the 9th, January however, a commercial plane bound for Kiev crashed in Iran, killing all on board. The 176 passengers were mainly Iranian and Canadian citizens. Canada’s Justin Trudeau blamed Iran. After initially denying involvement, Iran accepted it had mistakenly shot the plane down.
Soleimani was no terrorist. He had blood on his hands and threatened the geostrategic interests of the USA and her Middle Eastern allies but not American civilians.
His death comes at a crucial time for both countries. Iran is undergoing anti-regime protests and economic hardship. In 2020 President Trump of the US, who promised his voter base both to defy Iran and avoid overseas conflicts, faces reelection and impeachment. Tensions with Iran could rally nationalist support for Trump and get Republican hawks on his side – their support he needs when facing the senate.