Iran Marks Year Since US Killed ‘Martyr’ Soleimani, Amid Fear of Rising Violence
Opinions differ on whether assassination served American interests
Iran will mark on Sunday the first anniversary of the slaying of one of its most revered figures, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone in Baghdad on the orders of President Donald Trump.
Soleimani commanded the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which directly answers to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The general, who was 62 at the time of his death, was credited with increasing Iran’s influence in the region.
The United Nations and the European Union had personally sanctioned Soleimani. The United States designated him as a terrorist in 2005.
The assassination sent shock waves through the Middle East, enraging the Islamic Republic.
Dr. Hamed Mousavi, a professor of political science at the University of Tehran, told The Media Line the drone attack was in violation of international law. “The assassination of Qasem Soleimani crossed a major red line because Iran and the United States are not officially at war,” he says.
Also killed in the 1 am attack on a convoy belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashed al-Shaabi), an Iraqi paramilitary force with close ties to Tehran, were four other Iranians and five Iraqis, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Popular Mobilization Forces’ deputy leader. That also infuriated Iraqi armed groups allied with Iran.
The assassination of Soleimani was a significant blow to the Islamic Republic, Mousavi acknowledges.
“Regardless of the official rank, he was seen as very influential and very close to Iran’s supreme leader. I might say that he was the most influential military general in Iran.”
There were several reasons Soleimani was highly revered in Iran, Mousavi says.
“The first one was that he played an important role in the defeat of ISIS, which was seen as a very significant threat by Iran and the Iranian population because of ISIS’s Wahabi ideology and anti-Shia stance. Also, he tended not to engage in Iranian internal politics and he kept a low profile,” the professor says.
At the time, Trump said the slaying came in retaliation for a barrage of rocket attacks on the US embassy and military bases in Iraq.
“Since the Trump Administration came into power, Iran-US relations have reached an all-time low,” Mousavi says.
Relations between the two countries have been bad since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but Mousavi argues that under Trump they have gotten worse, “because the Trump Administration not only withdrew from the nuclear deal but essentially tried to sanction every country that trades with Iran.”
The anniversary comes after the US sent two B-52 long-range bombers to the Gulf this week in a show of force, a week after Trump warned Iran he would hold it accountable “if one American is killed” in rocket attacks in Iraq that the administration and military officials blame on Tehran.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to social media to respond to Trump regarding the increased tensions in the Gulf. “Instead of fighting Covid in US, @realDonaldTrump & cohorts waste billions to fly B52s & send armadas to OUR region,” Zarif tweeted.
He warned against dragging his country into a military conflict in Iraq: “Intelligence from Iraq indicate plot to FABRICATE pretext for war. Iran doesn’t seek war but will OPENLY & DIRECTLY defend its people, security & vital interests.”
Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who entered into office in May, has recently come under intense criticism from pro-Iran forces that accuse him of collaborating with Washington.
Soleimani’s killing did nothing to defuse the decades of simmering tensions between Tehran and Washington, nor did it contain Iran’s influence in the region. Neither did Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the 2015 nuclear accord in May 2018.
“Iran has influence in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and that influence is largely intact,” Mousavi says. The killing of Soleimani “had the reverse effect in the sense that it’s the Americans who are withdrawing their troops from the region. So, if anything, it has reduced US influence in the region. The assassination has not made the US more powerful in the region,” he added.
Powerful pro-Iranian paramilitary groups continue rocket attacks targeting US interests in Iraq, and the fragmented country remains a battleground between its neighbor Iran and its archenemy the US.
In anticipation of rising violence, the State Department pulled out some of its staff from the US embassy in Baghdad ahead of the anniversary.
Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., who heads the US Central Command, told reporters by phone during an overseas trip that Soleimani’s death had forced Iranian leaders to rethink their approach to the United States.
“The Iranians have never doubted our capability to respond. They never doubted that. But they’ve often doubted our will to respond,” McKenzie said. “I think that the Soleimani episode last January sort of set them back and they had to recalculate the will of the United States. We demonstrated a level of will that perhaps they did not believe that we would be able to have.”
Mousavi says killing Soleimani hurt the US.
Khamenei adored Soleimani. “Soleimani embodies Iranian values” such as “courage and resistance spirit,” the supreme leader said earlier in December.
With a new administration about to enter the White House, Iranians say it will be up to the new president to defuse the tensions between the two archenemies. President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to rejoin the nuclear deal.
“It remains to be seen how the Biden Administration’s policy toward Iran is formed. We are hearing that the Saudis and the Israelis are very busy lobbying for the US to remain outside the nuclear deal. We have to see whether Joe Biden’s caves in to those kinds of pressure. If Biden actually wants the nuclear deal to stay alive, he has to come back to the nuclear deal quite quickly, perhaps within the first one to two months,” says Mousavi.