Part 1: U.S. Strike on Soleimani

On Friday, January 3 (January 2 U.S. time), the United States killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Qods Force, in a drone strike at Baghdad’s International Airport. He had reportedly masterminded major military operations, bombings and assassinations since he took over the external operations wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1998. The strike, ordered by President Donald Trump, was a significant escalation in the tortured U.S.-Iran relationship.

The Pentagon described the overnight strike as a defensive measure:

General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. 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. He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months – including the attack on December 27th – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week.  

In a series of tweets, President Trump argued that Soleimani should have been killed years ago:

General Qassem Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more...but got caught! He was directly and indirectly responsible for the death of millions of people, including the recent large number of PROTESTERS killed in Iran itself. While Iran will never be able to properly admit it, Soleimani was both hated and feared within the country. They are not nearly as saddened as the leaders will let the outside world believe. He should have been taken out many years ago!

 

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had a personal relationship with Soleimani, pledged to retaliate against the United States. 

 

Born in 1957, Soleimani joined the IRGC and fought in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. He rose through the ranks and was appointed to head the Qods Force in 1998. Soleimani played a lead role in coordinating support to Iran’s network of allies and proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The United States held the Qods Force and Iran-backed militias in Iraq responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers since 2003. 

Soleimani

Once described as a “shadow commander,” Soleimani became more visible—in foreign deployments, public events, even in selfies—as Iran widened its influence in the Levant and the Gulf. He appeared with Shiite militias fighting ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria and granted several interviews to Iranian television channels. Soleimani had an Instagram account—with 800,000 followers—until the account was banned in April 2019 after the United States designated the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

The following is a timeline of how U.S.-Iran tensions spiraled starting in late December 2019.

 

Dec. 27: Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi militia backed by Iran, launched rockets at the K1 military base near Kirkuk, which housed U.S. military service members and Iraqi personnel. The attack killed a U.S. civilian contractor and wounded four U.S. service members and two Iraqis.  

Dec. 29: The United States responded with airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah positions in western Iraq and eastern Syria. The strikes, which reportedly killed at least 25 militants, targeted weapons depots and command centers that the group had used to attack U.S. forces and allies.  

Dec. 31: Supporters of Kataib Hezbollah stormed the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad to protest the U.S. airstrikes. The gunmen and demonstrators broke into a reception area inside the front gate but did not reach the main embassy buildings. They chanted “Death to America” and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the compound. Trump accused Tehran of orchestrating the attack and warned it would pay “a very big price.”

 

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that the United States would deploy an infantry battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division in response to the attacks.  

Jan. 2: Secretary Esper warned that the United States “will not accept continued attacks against our personnel & forces in the region.” He said that the United States would take “preemptive action” to defend U.S. interests against Iranian plots. “The game has changed,” Esper told reporters during a briefing.  

Jan. 3: President Trump ordered an airstrike on a convey of Iranian and Iraqi military leaders leaving Baghdad airport. The drone attack, launched on January 3 (January 2 US. time), killed seven people including General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC's elite Qods Force, and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, a Kataib Hezbollah leader. Muhandis was also the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of militias formed to fight ISIS. Many PMF militias have received arms, training and funding from Iran.  

Trump defended his decision to conduct the airstrike as a “defensive action” meant to “stop a war.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Soleimani was plotting “imminent attacks” on U.S. personnel and interests in the region. “It was time to take this action so that we could disrupt this plot, deter further aggression from Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian regime, as well as to attempt to de-escalate the situation,” he said

Esper announced that the United States would deploy 3,500 additional troops to the region after Iran’s supreme leader vowed “severe revenge” for the death of Soleimani. The United States urged all U.S. citizens to leave Iraq immediately.  

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as the new commander of the Qods Force and that its mission would not change. Ghaani had worked closely with Soleimani and had been deputy commander of the Qods Force since 1997.  

 

Jan. 4: Iranian General Gholamali Abuhamzeh said that the IRGC had identified at least 35 U.S. targets that could be hit in retaliatory strikes. He specifically named U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf and the city of Tel Aviv.

Trump warned that the United States had identified 52 targets, including cultural sites, and that Washington would strike if Iran attempted retaliatory attacks on U.S. interests. Trump said that the 52 sites represented the 52 American hostages held by Iranian protestors in the 1979 attack of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.  

 

The Pentagon reported that two rocket attacks had occurred near bases that hosted coalition troops in Baghdad and Balad. No casualties were reported, and no group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks. 

NATO announced that it would suspend a mission to train Iraqi security forces due to the threat of an attack by Iran. “The safety of our personnel in Iraq is paramount,” acting NATO spokesman Dylan White said. “We continue to take all precautions necessary. NATO’s mission is continuing, but training activities are temporarily suspended.”

Jan. 5: Thousands of Iranians gathered in the streets of Ahvaz and Mashhad to mourn the death of Soleimani as his body arrived in Iran for a funeral procession. Mourners shouted, “Death to America” and burned U.S. and Israeli flags.

 

Iraqi lawmakers voted on a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of U.S. and all foreign forces. The resolution would also require the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to file a complaint at the United Nations against the United States for breaching Iraqi sovereignty. It also called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the airstrike that killed Soleimani and Muhandis. The resolution was primarily backed by Shiite lawmakers. Some 150 representatives, including all 58 Kurds and most of the legislature’s Sunnis, boycotted the session. The draft bill would not go into law until signed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

The United States said that it was “disappointed” in the Iraqi parliament’s vote. “We strongly urge Iraqi leaders to reconsider the importance of the ongoing economic and security relationship between the two countries and the continued presence of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus. “We believe it is in the shared interests of the United States and Iraq to continue fighting ISIS together.”

Iran announced that it would no longer abide by restrictions on uranium enrichment imposed by the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “The Islamic Republic of Iran, in the fifth step in reducing its commitments, discards the last key component of its operational limitations in the JCPOA, which is the limit on the number of centrifuges,” the government said. Tehran emphasized that all its actions were reversible and that it would return to the deal if sanctions would be lifted and its interests could be guaranteed. Iran said it would continue to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

Jan 6: Hundreds of thousands of Iranians turned out for Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran. Many shouted “Death to America.” Supreme Leader Khamenei wept over the coffin. Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Gha’ani, warned that Iran would take revenge. The late general’s daughter, Zeinab, lashed out against President Trump. “You crazy Trump, the symbol of ignorance, the slave of Zionists, don’t think that the killing of my father will finish everything,” she told mourners. “The families of the American soldiers in western Asia will spend their days waiting for the death of their children.”

Jan. 8: Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Soleimani. No U.S. or Iraqi personnel were harmed. Iran was quick to claim responsibility for the attack on U.S. forces. But its foreign minister also emphasized that Tehran did not seek war. 

 

Minutes later, President Trump took to Twitter and implied that the damage to the al Assad and Irbil facilities was not serious. “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning,” he tweeted. 

Later in the day, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that Iran’s ultimate goal was to expel U.S. forces from the wider Middle East. “Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region,” he said in a televised speech. As of January 2020, the United States had more than 60,000 troops deployed throughout the wider region, including Afghanistan, which borders Iran. 

President Trump, in a televised address, said the United States would impose additional economic sanctions on Iran and continue to evaluate other ways to respond to the attack. He also called on the remaining parties to the 2015 nuclear deal – Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia – to withdraw from the agreement and work toward a new, more comprehensive one. “We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” he added. “The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer.”

But he also made an overture to negotiate with the Islamic Republic and suggested the two countries could work together on issues of common concern, such as ISIS. “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it,” he said.
 

Photo Credit: Ali Najafifar for Fars News Agency (CC BY 4.0)

 

Updated