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Explainer: Why Qasem Soleimani's death is a turning point between the US and Iran

The killing of Iran’s top general could draw forceful Iranian retaliation against American interests in the Middle East.

iran-soleimani Protesters in Tehran demonstrate over the US airstrike in Iraq that killed General Soleiman. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

AS IRAN THREATENS “severe revenge” for the US strike in Baghdad which killed General Qasem Soleimani, political leaders and analysts have given their reaction to an unprecedented escalation in tensions between Iran and the United States. 

“We have woken up to a more dangerous world,” French Minister Amelie de Montchalin said, adding President Emmanuel Macron will consult with Middle East leaders today. 

Tehran-based analyst Mohammad Marandi, meanwhile, said the US had essentially “declared war” against Iran and Iraq.

As the head of the Quds, or Jerusalem Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani led Iran’s expeditionary forces and frequently moved between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, acting as mastermind behind Iran’s Middle East ambitions. 

President Donald Trump ordered Soleimani’s killing “in a decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad,” the Pentagon said in a statement today, adding that Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

“Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more,” said the US Department of Defence.

The Department also accused Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, of approving the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.

With the US Embassy urging US citizens to leave Iraq immediately, Iran has convened a meeting of its Supreme National Security Council to discuss Soleimani’s killing, which could draw forceful Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region and spiral into a far larger conflict between the US and Iran, endangering US troops in Iraq, Syria and across the Middle East. 

Who Was Qasem Soleimani?

General Soleimani was the key architect of Iran’s regional influence, leading the fight against jihadist forces and extending Iran’s diplomatic heft in Iraq and Syria.

He remained popular among many Iranians, who saw him as a selfless hero fighting Iran’s enemies abroad. 

US officials, however, said Iran’s Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants to manufacture and use deadly roadside bombs against US troops after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a charge Iran has denied.

The General had wielded his influence publicly since 2018 when it was revealed he was directly involved in top-level talks over the formation of Iraq’s government.

Soleimani - a previously secretive figure - became an unlikely celebrity in Iran in recent years – replete with a huge following on Instagram.

PA-49325170 Qasem Soleimani SalamPix / ABACA SalamPix / ABACA / ABACA

The General’s profile rose suddenly when he was pushed forward as the public face of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian conflict from 2013, appearing in battlefield photos and documentaries.

In a rare interview aired on Iranian state television last October, Soleimani said he was in Lebanon during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to oversee the conflict.

CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, in a profile for Time’s 100 most influential people in 2017, wrote of Soleimani: “To Middle Eastern Shiites, he is James Bond, Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga rolled into one.”

“To the West, he is…responsible for exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution, supporting terrorists, subverting pro-Western governments and waging Iran’s foreign wars,” Pollack said. 

A survey published in 2018 by IranPoll and the University of Maryland – one of few considered reliable by analysts – found Soleimani had a popularity rating of 83%, beating President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Western leaders saw him as central to Iran’s ties with militia groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.

United States-Iran

Although Iran’s conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, the Revolutionary Guard has gradually built up a ballistic missile program.

It also can strike asymmetrically in the region through forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The US has long blamed Iran for car bombings and kidnappings it never claimed.

In 2015, Iran agreed a landmark deal essentially prohibiting it from developing nuclear weapons. 

The deal was abandoned, however, by US President Donald Trump in 2018. 

Relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated further and, in June 2019, the US accused Iran of being behind attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman. 

Today’s attack which killed Soleimani was retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the US blamed on Iranian-backed militia. 

Soleimani’s death, meanwhile, fundamentally threatens to destabilise Iraq. 

The US led the 2003 invasion against then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and has worked closely with Iraqi officials since.

Yet its influence has waned compared with that of Tehran, which has carefully crafted personal ties with Iraqi politicians and armed factions, even during Saddam’s reign, through Soleimani. 

Iraqi officials have warned in recent months that their country could be used as an arena for score-settling between Iran and the US, a prospect all the more likely given Soleimani’s death. 

How Has Iran Reacted?

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today warned of “severe revenge” for Soleimani’s death and vowed that “God willing, his work and his path will not be stopped”.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, meanwhile, slammed the move as “foolish” and denounced it as a “dangerous escalation”.

State television interrupted its regular programming to detail the commander’s achievements in the region, pointing to many times he “foiled” US plans.

The Islamic republic’s top security body also called an emergency meeting over the attack.

“In a few hours, an extraordinary meeting of the Supreme National Security Council will be held to review the murderous attack on the vehicle of General Soleimani in Baghdad that lead to his martyrdom,” ISNA quoted its secretariat spokesman Keyvan Khosravi as saying.

The foreign ministry also summoned an official from the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which represents US interests in Iran, to “strongly protest” the killing, according to a tweet by ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

“The US’ act of international terrorism, targeting and assassinating General Soleimani… is extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.

“The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism,” he added.

In a statement, the foreign ministry said the United States would pay for the “atrocity”.

“The malice and stupidity of America’s terrorist forces in assassinating General Soleimani, this hero martyr and the leader of combatting terrorism and extremism, will certainly further empower the tree of resistance in the region and the world,” it said.

The ministry said it would “use all its political legal and international capacities to enact the decisions of the Supreme National Security Council to make the murderous and terrorist regime of America answer for this clear atrocity.”

The United States

Lawmakers in the United States, meanwhile, have said they were not consulted in advance of the attack which killed Soleimani. 

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “Tonight’s airstrike risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence. America – and the world – cannot afford to have tensions escalate to the point of no return. The Administration has conducted tonight’s strikes in Iraq targeting high-level Iranian military officials and killing Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani without an Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iran.

“Further, this action was taken without the consultation of the Congress. The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation and on the next steps under consideration by the Administration, including the significant escalation of the deployment of additional troops to the region.”

Tweet by @Donald J. Trump Donald J. Trump / Twitter Donald J. Trump / Twitter / Twitter

The strike conducted in Iraq against Soleimani ”went forward with no notification or consultation with Congress,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel. 

Soleimani was “the mastermind of immense violence” who had “the blood of Americans on his hands,” the Democratic lawmaker said.

Yet “to push ahead with an action of this gravity without involving Congress raises serious legal problems and is an affront to Congress’s powers as a coequal branch of government,” said Engel.

Democratic 2020 presidential frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, described Soleimani’s assassination as “a huge escalatory move in an already dangerous region”. 

Speaking today, Tom Fletcher, a former UK ambassador to Lebanon, said Soleimani was a “much more powerful figure than Osama bin Laden or [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi, where at the moment of their own deaths their power was in decline. His [power] was growing, as it has been really since the US invasion of Iraq.”

Said Fletcher: “[It is] hard to overstate the potential impact of this moment”.

With reporting from - © AFP 2020

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