DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – Dr. Vaughn Shannon – who teaches Middle East studies and political science at Wright State University – said the U.S. bombing on Jan. 3 that killed Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani was the largest escalation in the 40-year face-off between Iran and the United States.

“Soleimani was the leader of the Quds Force and the Revolutionary guard, but unofficially some say he was the second or third highest person of power in the Iranian government,” Shannon said. “Since the Iraq-Iran War, he cut his chops as a heroic, defender of the nation type who promoted Iranian interests – usually at the expense of Israel or the U.S.”

Shannon compared the killing of Soleimani to a scenario in which the Iranians bombed General David Petraeus or Gulf War General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Three Iraqis were killed as well, including a popular Shia militia leader and politician Abu Mahdi al-Mahandis.

What led to the bombing?

The U.S. bombing came after several incidents over the last week. A rocket attack by a Shia militia called the Popular Mobilization Forces killed an American in Baghdad last week. The U.S. responded with airstrikes against the Iranian militia Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq, killing 25 of their fighters. Backers of the militias then attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, crashing the front entrance.

Shannon said the Iraqi government negotiated with the embassy attackers to back down and leave the embassy, which seemed to de-escalate the situation until Thursday when U.S. intelligence indicated Soleimani and al-Mahandis would be meeting with other militia leaders at the Baghdad Airport, which was bombed.

Soleimani’s role in Iraqi violence is deep. He’s known for developing many of the high-tech improvised explosive devices that killed and injured thousands of U.S. troops for over a decade.

The meeting with the Iraqi militia leaders suggests Soleimani wasn’t done pushing Iranian influence in Iraq. Shannon said there is a good chance the attack at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also raised the ire of those in the Trump administration who remember the Benghazi, Libya embassy attack in 2012.

But Shannon said the backlash against the attack will loom large. The U.S. broke an agreement with the Iraqi government which kept the United States from unilaterally attacking Iraqis in the country without approval or action with the government. While Soleimani was a major factor in the sectarian warfare that killed American soldiers, he was also a general and a high official in the Iranian government which makes his killing more complicated than bombing a terrorist group.

What’s the history between Iran and the U.S.?

According to Shannon, the attack was the latest in a 40-year proxy conflict between the two countries which gained traction after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  • In 1979 religious and student groups overthrew the Iranian monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who led the U.S.-backed government. The government was replaced by an authoritarian Shiite theocracy opposed to the United States.
  • Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, starting the seven-year Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. provided weapons and other arms to then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who was fighting Iran. The war ended after seven years.
  • Iran trained, armed and aided terror groups like Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both groups have been at war with one of the United States’ most important allies, Israel. Iran is also at odds with Saudi Arabia, another U.S. ally.
  • When the U.S. invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, a Shiite majority government was elected. Iran began to push their interests with fellow Shia in the Iraqi government. When sectarian fighting broke out following the invasion, the Iranians backed militias and other Shiite groups. Soleimani was behind much of their arms, strategies and helped develop improvised explosive devices that killed and maimed thousands of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
  • For years, Iran was working to develop a nuclear weapon. In 2015, the Obama administration along with the European Union and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, negotiated to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for the halting of economic sanctions against the country. The U.S. withdrew from the deal under President Trump in May 2018. Shannon said it will be interesting to see how history judges the nuclear deal and the withdrawal. “Under the deal, we had tentative stable peace. That’s been thrown out.”

Controversy is over matter of ‘proportion’; overreaching political and military concerns

When the Islamic State conquered major territory in Iraq, a group of U.S. personnel, Iraqi Army, Kurdish fighters and Iranian-backed militias pushed the terrorist group out of Iraq and into Syria while inflicting them with heavy losses.

“Some of these PMF groups worked with us indirectly and had parallel attacks with us against the Islamic State,” Shannon said. “But in post-ISIS Iraq, the idea in Iran and among Iraqi Shiite militias was to agitate Americans and to get us to leave Iraq. We were rightfully mad.”

Shannon said the airstrikes that killed 25 militia fighters were more in lines of previous responses. This attack changes current concerns for the U.S.

He said Soleimani was popular in Iran and Iraq and with a weak Iraqi government, this could lead to the U.S. being pushed out of the country, or war between Iraq having to choose sides in a conflict between the U.S. and Iran. PMF groups are represented by factions in the Iraqi government and it could push the country toward a constitutional crisis.

It also brings into question how Iran will respond.

“It’s a matter of what’s considered proportionate,” Shannon said. “It’s safe to say this is an escalation to a new level of consequences not yet known. I don’t believe it will be World War III, or it will be peace and happiness.”