How the U.S.-Iran crisis unfolded

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Tensions break after Donald Trump orders the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the top Iranian military commander. Photo//People.com

On January 3, 2020, Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top general, was killed with six others near Baghdad’s international airport by missiles shot from American drones. The assassination, ordered by President Trump, caused widespread confusion and fear of Iran’s possible retaliation among both critics and supporters. 

Qasem Soleimani was Iran’s most powerful military figure in security and intelligence. He was the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force in Tehran, whose mission was to defend the Islamic Republic of Iran and to extend its influence throughout the world. These Iranian operatives were blamed for many major happenings in history: Major General Soleimani had a huge influence in salvaging the deadly Syrian Civil War for President Bashar Al-Assad’s continued oppressive reign by gathering support and fighters from multiple countries in the Middle East. Soleimani was also believed to have armed and assisted groups the United States have classified as terrorist organizations, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. According to a statement by the Department of Defense, “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.” For its extreme aggression, the United States classified the Quds Force as a terrorist organization in 2007. While Soleimani was celebrated as a hero by the Iranian regime, he was condemned as a terrorist by the United States government.

Nevertheless, the commander’s death sparked questions about the decision’s legality. Trump ordered the attack without congressional approval, but his administration claimed it was an “imminent threat” which can justify the decision: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended this claim, stating that Soleimani was “planning a broad, large-scale attack against American interests, and those attacks were imminent against American facilities,” but did not know precisely when or where the attack would take place. Last Friday, Trump clarified that “four U.S. embassies, including the American Embassy in Baghdad,” were targets in a planned attack by Soleimani.

Trump also explained his decision by citing Iran’s behavior days before the general’s assassination. In early December 2019, a series of rocket attacks were aimed at air bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces. Mike Pompeo believed Iran-backed forces to be the culprit, and he warned that any more attacks by Iran on U.S. forces “will be answered with a decisive US response.” On December 27, a U.S. civilian contractor was killed and several American troops and Iraqi personnel were wounded in a rocket attack that targeted an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk. There was no claim of responsibility but U.S. officials believed Iran-backed militias were responsible. In response, the U.S. carried out airstrikes on December 29 against the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia, where at least 25 fighters were killed. It was an attack aimed to deter Iran’s aggression. 

However, the attack backfired, igniting Iran’s retaliation instead. On New Year’s Eve, several thousand protestors—supporters of Shia militias—stormed the U.S. Embassy’s security post in Baghdad, Iraq, setting fire and chanting “Death to America!” Trump accused Iran of the attack, tweeting, “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.” After the Pentagon gave Trump options on how to deal with Soleimani, Trump chose to assassinate him. The call caused various reactions from domestic and international government officials, with some supporting him for his direct action and some criticizing him for his rash and uncalculated planning that may lead multiple countries into war.

Iran was stunned by its top general’s death and spent the next days mourning. Trump tweeted another warning, saying that if the country retaliates its cultural sites will be attacked—a warning that breaks international, domestic, and U.S. military law. He has since then retracted his statement. 3000 more U.S. soldiers have been sent to Iraq. Iran announced that it will no longer abide by the nuclear deal created in 2015, and Iraq—having become a battlefield for the two countries—voted for the expulsion of all U.S. troops in the country. However, the Trump administration dismissed the Iraqi parliament’s vote.

On January 8, Iran launched 22 missiles on Iraq’s bases housing U.S. military, however, no casualties were reported. In fact, there was only minimal structural damage, which Trump believes to be the start of de-escalation. However, Iran’s supreme leader believes otherwise, stating that the missile attack was “a slap in the face of the U.S.,” and that military action is still “not enough,” alluding to more possible retaliation. 

According to Public Radio International, with the instability of the US-Iran relations, Iraq finds itself taking most of the impact: “Many Iraqis complain that their country has become a battlefield for a proxy war for influence between Washington and Tehran, and their leaders are too beholden to outside powers.” According to The New York Times, “The prime minister said earlier on Friday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to send a delegation from the United States to discuss steps for the withdrawal of the approximately 5,200 American troops from his country, in the aftermath of a deadly American military strike ordered by President Trump that many Iraqis say violated their country’s sovereignty.” However, the Trump administration refused to send a delegation to discuss pulling out its troops, further ignoring Iraqi sovereignty.  

Many officials have called for the end of the back and forth attacks to prevent any more damage to all the parties involved. The United States House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, recently passed a resolution retraining Trump’s war powers concerning Iran, emphasizing the necessity of congressional approval in any future actions taken. The resolution directs Trump to terminate military operations taken against Iran, except in self-defense. The resolution will next head to the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. The resolution, if it passes, may completely de-escalate the two countries’ aggression. Both countries have yet to declare any further military action at the time of this publication.