On Jan. 3, the United States (U.S.) carried out a military operation resulting in the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, an action widely criticized by U.S. allies and which was met by forceful opposition and anger by Tehran. The event followed several years of escalation in the U.S.-Iranian conflict, which included the invasion of the U.S. embassy, located in Baghdad, last December.
Subsequent to the military operation responsible for the assassination of Soleimani, Iranian Cabinet officials declared the nation would no longer adhere to the JCPOA, colloquially referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal, and would proceed to expand uranium enrichment. On Jan. 8, Iran launched several ballistic missiles directed toward the Ayn al-Asad airbase in Western Iraq, which served as an American military base in the region. Though no deaths were confirmed, 11 military personnel members were consequently evaluated for injuries. Reports suggest Iran informed the Iraqi government prior to the attack. Such information was evidently channeled to American officials.
As a response to the attack on the Iraqi military base, President Trump issued increased sanctions against Iran, with the tension between the two countries leading their respective citizenry to believe another extensive military expedition in the Middle East would ultimately come to fruition. If this were to have happened, it would have followed 18 uninterrupted years of American military presence in the region.
The present-day conflict between the United States and the government of Iran, though it dates back to the first half of the 20th century, had its point of intensification in 1979. With Ayatollah Rhomeini’s guidance, the Islamic Republic of Iran was formed, thus formally becoming a theocratic state in April 1979. In November of the same year, Islamic students and followers of the Ayatollah invaded the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 American hostages, many of them serving in diplomatic posts, in what became a forceful demand for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to return to Iran and stand trial. The Shah had been admitted into the United States in order to undergo surgery for gallstones. This was followed by the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Iran-Contra Affair in the 1980’s, a period of economic sanctions against Iran in the 2000’s, and the eventual nuclear arms deal in 2016.
The tension, which has recently manifested into armed conflict between the two nations, has been in escalation since 2015, when Iran tested the Emad, a medium-range ballistic missile, in violation of the United Nations Council Resolution 1929 (2010). In 2016, Iran violated the limits on heavy water stock established by the Nuclear Deal in two different occasions, prompting President Trump to strengthen his rhetoric in opposition of the deal; however, the U.S. continued to uphold its commitment through 2017. In Dec. 2017, the United Nation Secretary General established Iran had violated the arms embargo provisions on Resolution 2231. In May 2018, following Iran’s expressed intention to pursue naval nuclear propulsion, President Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA.
The retaliatory actions by both countries did not only do away with whatever reconciliatory work the Bush and Obama administrations may have strived for, but it also thrusted American foreign policy to the forefront of the 2020 presidential election.
Amid the lonely place where President Trump stands, given none of America’s allies–Britain, France, Germany– supported his decision to strike down Soleimani, Emanuel Macron was a vocal encourager for Iran to return to diplomatic normalcy by urging Iranian president Rouhani to “return to full compliance with [Iran’s] commitment under the JCPOA.”
Though “war” was timely avoided–which almost certainly would have presented a governmental deficit for Iran given the country’s internal instability–the sudden military escalation highlights the thin line dividing the delicate idea of diplomacy and the sometimes volatile nature of a peace-through-strength approach, especially when the countries in question sit on alternate extremes of the global power imbalance scale, as the U.S. and the Republic of Iran do.
Sources: Arms Control Association, Associated Press, PBS NewsHour, Washington Post