Breakdown: The U.S.-Iran Conflict

Conflict between the U.S. and Iran is nothing new and has a history reaching back for almost 70 years.

The tense U.S.-Iran relationship began decades ago when the U.S. overthrew the democratically elected government in 1953 to prevent the Iranians from nationalizing a British oil company. This led to establishment of absolute monarchy ruled by the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. While the regime was pro-U.S., it was also a brutal dictatorship. The U.S. continued to support Pahlavi for 26 years until 1979 when a revolution eliminated him, and a theocratic Islamic Republic was formed. The U.S.’s continued support of a dictator led to fierce resentment, and the new government of Iran was staunchly anti-American. This attitude has carried on in major political figures in modern Iran.

Following the U.S. exit from the Iran Nuclear Deal, hostilities continued to build.

The Iran Nuclear Deal was put in place in July 2015 and offered massive sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for comprehensive restrictions on and oversight of its nuclear program, preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.     

President Trump withdrew from the U.S. from the deal on May 8, 2018. The move was met with global opposition, as Iran was in compliance with the deal. President Trump’s criticism of the deal of its 15-year expiration date and its failure to address other issues, such as Iran’s non-nuclear missile programs, and support of militant groups in the Middle East. The U.S. withdrawal from the deal is critical as relief from U.S. sanctions was the primary driver for the deal—without the U.S., a new Iran deal is unlikely to occur.

In an attempt to increase pressure on Iran to stop not only its nuclear program but also its missile programs and support of militias, President Trump enacted oil sanctions that went even further than the pre-deal sanctions, designed to prevent all Iranian oil exports. This hit the country hard as oil production is a primary source of income for the nation, and oil exports have dropped by 89 percent since their high in 2018. Iran responded by striking key oil infrastructure and other assets controlled by the U.S. and its allies. This included the seizure of a British oil tanker by the revolutionary guard, shooting down a U.S. drone, damaging oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, potentially a missile attack of which they are accused on a key Saudi oil facility.

Then, on December 27, an Iran-backed militia group launched a rocket attack on U.S. personnel, injuring several service members and killing an American contractor. The U.S. retaliated with airstrikes on militia bases, killing 25. Just four days later, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was attacked by protesters. Although the Iranian government denies it, the U.S. blamed them for the attack.

Then, in a massive escalation of tensions, President Trump ordered a drone strike on top-ranking general Qasem Soleimani.

At 12:47 on January 2 at Baghdad International Airport, missiles from an American MQ-9 Reaper drone detonated on vehicle carrying Qasem Soleimani, killing him in an instant.

Soleimani was the leader of Iran’s elite Quds force, and a popular public figure in Iran—according to a University of Maryland Poll, 82 percent of Iranians viewed him favorably and 59 percent viewed him very favorably. In the U.S. and Israel, however, he is a designated terrorist, as Soleimani was integral in forming the network of militia groups that Iran supports across the Middle East today and was allegedly involved in a campaign of roadside bombs against U.S. forces in Iraq two years ago.

From his Mar-a-lago estate the day of the attack, President Trump stated that “Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and personnel.” These were threats were later clarified on a Fox News program to be to “four U.S. embassies,” though Pentagon Chief of Staff Mark Esper and other intelligence officials have stated that there was not reasonable evidence to believe this was the case.

In a press conference at the White House on January 7, Trump broke from the earlier story about an imminent threat, stating that, “Ours was an attack based on what they did. We weren’t the first one out. He killed an American. Now two people are dead from the same attack, and some people very badly wounded. And that was one of his smaller endeavors.” This also leaves open the possibility that Trump’s action was illegal, both internationally and domestically, if the action was not taken in self-defense as originally stated. So far, no evidence has been presented to prove that Soleimani actually posed an “imminent threat,” and a Washington Post report revealed that the embassies allegedly in danger from Soleimani were not informed of the threat. Iran has since filed a suit in the International Criminal Court in Hauge and an anonymous NATO military attache in the region told Business Insider that “if it does go forward, the case against the Americans is shockingly strong.”

The international response to the killing was largely negative, and while many leaders were quick to clarify that Soleimani was a dangerous man, most saw the killing as an unnecessary escalation of tensions. In a statement the following day, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said, “We call on all sides to exercise restraint and pursue de-escalation,” but also that  “Canada has long been concerned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force, led by Qasem Soleimani, whose aggressive actions have had a destabilizing effect in the region and beyond.” The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, also said his government had “always recognized the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force… we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests.”

Within the United States, opinions were split largely, though not entirely, along political lines. Former Vice President and 2020 presidential hopeful Joe Biden characterized the move as tossing “a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” while Republican Senator from Arkansas Tom Cotton asserted that “America is safer now after Soleimani’s demise.” Notably, Fox News Host Tucker Carlson and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul both broke party lines over the issue to condemn the president’s decision, saying it was inconsistent with his promise to end the long wars in the Middle East.

As retaliation for the killing, Iran launched missiles at U.S. military bases. Luckily, that was where it ended.

At about 5:30 p.m., the U.S. detected missile launches from western Iran, directed towards Al Asad Air Base in Iraq, where 2,000 soldiers are stationed. The missiles were staggered over the course of an hour, and inflicted no casualties, but damaged a helicopter and some structures. Two personnel on watch were thrown out of a guard tower by the blast and were treated for concussions.

With first the assassination of a general and then a missile attack on a military base, the potential of war with Iran was on everyone’s mind. The final missiles were accompanied by a message from Tehran, however: That was it. This was their retribution. With further escalation out of the question for now, President Trump composed a tweet clarifying the situation and saying that “All is well” before he retired for the night.

The next morning, he announced from the White House that “Iran appears to be standing down” and that he was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

The conflict, however, came too close for comfort: According to Ilan Goldenberg, a senior official at the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, “We came very, very, very close to a major war with Iran last week and it seems that it was at least partially dumb luck we didn’t end up in one.” Should U.S. troops have been killed in the attack, the U.S may have had no choice but to respond, and the situation would have been likely to worsen form there. Luckily, no troops were killed, and Iran has no further plans for retribution, so the situation has quieted down for now.

Regardless of what the memes may say, this is not World War Three.

All of this came at the same time as many students were filling out their Federal Applications For Student Aid, on which there is a new box that asks applicants if they have registered for the Selective Service (or draft, as it is better known). This box offers to register applicants automatically for the Service and made a number of students concerned about a draft in light of the current events. This concern was captured in a viral TikTok about having to flee from the draft for World War III, which further boosted the traffic to the Selective Service website and caused it to crash.

As one might expect, this didn’t help matters, further convincing many that a draft was imminent. This was untrue—a draft has not occurred in the United States since 1973 and would require a number of steps including an act of Congress to implement, but that didn’t stop the internet from having a heyday with it as a flurry of “World War III” memes ensued.

Despite the panic, a full-scale war with Iran was incredibly unlikely, a draft even more so, as such a conflict would almost certainly be a massively unpopular no-win situation. In this light, the de-escalation is not wholly surprising, as neither the U.S. nor Iran wants a war, and Iran has a long history of taking aggressive actions that walk the line between showing strength and provoking conflict.

A number of questions remain to be answered: How this will affect our long-term relations with Iran and Iraq, our standing in the world, and whether Trump will face international or domestic consequences for the Soleimani attack.

For now though, we can all let out our held breath: the conflict with Iran, at least for now, is over.

Photo: Masoud Shahrestani/Tasnim News Agency (Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)