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The past week has been characterised by an escalation of tensions between sworn foes in the Middle East. On December 27, 2019, numerous rockets were fired, allegedly by an Iranian-backed militia called Kataib Hezbollah, at an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk. This resulted in the death of an American contractor and wounded four American and two Iraqi servicemen. Although Kataib Hezbollah denied responsibility for the attack, America launched retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia targets in Iraq and Syria two days later. This resulted in the deaths of 25 people according to the Sydney Morning Herald. On December 31, 2019, members of pro-Iranian militia marched on the U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad in response to the airstrikes. To which, President Donald Trump issued a threat of a “very big price” on Iran through Twitter. This ultimately culminated in the U.S. coordinating an airstrike on Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian General who was widely considered to be the second most powerful figure in Iran, behind the Supreme Leader Khamenei himself.
Qasem Soleimani was the head of Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Soleimani was widely regarded as the strategic mastermind behind Iran’s post-revolution ambitions in the Middle East. According to the BBC, he was partly responsible for orchestrating President Bashar al-Assad’s war in Syria and the fight against ISIS. In addition, he also commanded a complex web of militias that are responsible for promulgating Iran’s influence in the region.
In response to this attack, President Hassan Rouhani said in a statement that “Iran and other free nations of the region will take revenge for this gruesome crime from criminal America.” Meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, has declared General Soleimani’s assassination as “an act of international terrorism” through a tweet. Claiming that “the U.S. bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”
The reception to this attack has also received mixed reactions within the U.S., moving strictly along partisan lines. As reported by the BBC, senior members of President Trump’s Republican Party welcomed this move. “I appreciate President @realDonaldTrump’s bold action against Iranian aggression,” said GOP Senator Lindsey Graham in a show of support on Twitter. However, former Vice President and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden declared General Soleimani’s death a “hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region.” Overall, Democrats have widely condemned the President’s decision to carry out the strike, according to CNN.
The assassination of General Soleimani represents a departure from President Trump’s proposed non-interventionist U.S. military policy. Under this non-interventionist proposition, Reuters reported that the U.S. military would avoid interventions in foreign conflicts and instead focus on defeating ISIS. Instead, the President has chosen to follow the path of his predecessors by engaging in the proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a theological regional rivalry for decades, vying for the leadership of the Muslim world. The escalation in tensions between the U.S. and Iran during the past week will continue fanning this vicious cycle of violence between Washington, Tehran and Riyadh. 2020 Presidential candidate Joe Biden is right in saying that “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.” This is further reaffirmed by the response to this attack from Iranian government officials, which unanimously indicate a violent retaliation. Ultimately, Washington, Tehran or Riyadh will have to show good leadership and put an end to this cycle of violence, before instigating the increasingly likely outcome of another war in the Middle East.