After a targeted U.S. drone strike killed Iranian military general, Qasem Suleimani on January 3rd, tensions between the two countries have been severely heightened. Suleimani was considered to be the second most powerful person in Iran, behind supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. His death has had several international repercussions, including a Iranian missile attack on a U.S. air base in western Iraq.
Hostility between the U.S. and Iran has existed for years, and has increased since President Donald Trump took office, as he vowed early in his presidential campaign to place more pressure on the regime. In May of 2018, the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, a move that impacted Iran’s economy. The U.S. has also blamed Iran for multiple attacks on oil tankers and refineries, as well as the shooting down of a U.S. drone over Yemen in August 2019.
Tensions escalated in late December, when rockets killed one American and injured four others on a military base in northeastern Iraq. The U.S. blamed the attack on an Iranian-backed militia, and responded with attacks of their own, killing dozens of militia fighters in Iraq and Syria. Angered by these attacks, protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. All of this and more led to the January 3rd assassination of Suleimani.
After Suleimani’s death, the Iranian regime warned that “harsh retaliation” would be coming. This put many U.S. citizens on edge, including those of age to be drafted, as the assassination was regarded by many to be an act of war by the U.S.
Although war between the two countries has not been declared yet, U.S. soldiers stationed in neighboring countries of Iran remain in danger. On January 7th, Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two bases housing U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. The Pentagon later stated on January 24th that 34 U.S. troops were evacuated with symptoms of concussion or traumatic brain injury, also known as TBI, as a result of the attack.
On January 8th, a passenger flight from Tehran, Iran to Kiev, Ukraine was shot down shortly after takeoff. All 176 passengers and crew members were killed. At first, the Iranian government said a technical error with the plane was responsible, but then the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps admitted they shot the plane down after mistaking it for a U.S. cruise missile, which are designed to deliver large warheads over long distances. Thousands of Iranian protesters filled the streets of Tehran after this admission, shouting phrases such as “death to liars” and “death to dictators”.
After the death of Suleimani, the U.S. government’s logic behind the decision still remains in question. Since the strike, government officials have given differing responses as to why Suleimani was targeted. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed the “decision to eliminate Soleimani” was “in response to imminent threats to American lives.” It should be noted that Suleimani had been a longtime threat and was deemed responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq, however President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama did not order that Suleimani be killed, as they believed it could lead to war in Iran.
“Suleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act,” Trump claimed, in remarks to reporters after the strike. He added that rather than start a war, the U.S. took steps to stop one.
Just two days after Pompeo highlighted the “imminent attack” as a reason for the strike against Suleimani, he downplayed its importance in the decision. “It’s never one thing…It’s a collective. It’s a full situational awareness of risk and analysis,” he said on Meet the Press.
On January 9th, Trump gave a more specific explanation. “We caught a total monster and we took him out…We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy,” he said in a news conference. This claim has not been repeated by any other major figures in the Trump administration. Three days later, Trump asserted without evidence that four American embassies were targeted by Suleimani. “Could have been military bases, could have been a lot of other things too. But it was imminent,” he added.
The same day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper disagreed with Trump over his statement. Esper said that he never saw any specific evidence to support the claim that four embassies were targeted.
Many Democrats and some Republicans in the House and Senate remain doubtful that there was sufficient cause to warrant a drone strike against a powerful military general like Suleimani. Congress was not consulted before the strike, giving them more reason to demand justification, as well as a description of the “imminent attack” mentioned by Pompeo.
After the strike, Senator Tim Kaine introduced a resolution barring the use of further military force against Iran without congressional authorization. Representatives Ilhan Omar and Barbara Lee subsequently announced they planned to introduce a House version of Kaine’s resolution.
The future of U.S. and Iran relations remain unclear. Trump has stated that his administration will “continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression,” and Iran has signaled that their retaliation has concluded, at least for now.