A U.S. drone strike kills a top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, and the founder of the Iranian-sponsored militia Kata'ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes. According to The Pentagon, the two military leaders were killed at Baghdad International airport early in the morning of Jan. 3rd. At least five others were killed, as well.
While the international legality and decision to attack the two is generating mixed reactions around the world, depending on what side you ask, there can be no denying the monumental repercussions of this latest incident in the Middle East.
First, a background on Soleimani. The general was the head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, a special unit that focuses on intelligence and unconventional warfare operations. According to the New York Times, General Suleimani was behind every major military and intelligence operation for Iran over the last two decades. He played a huge role in shaping the war in Syria, and commanded operations that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq.
U.S. lawmakers have expressed relief in the death of Soleimani, with both sides of the aisle agreeing the world is a safer place.
"The world is a better place now that he is dead," said Sen. Pat Toomey, -R- Pennsylvania, "Every American should be grateful to our armed forces who carried out this strike with incredible skill and precision. The Trump administration was right to restore deterrence against Iran."
Sen. Bob Casey, -D- Pennsylvania, also said the world is a safer place now, but urged caution moving forward.
"The Trump Administration must brief Congress on the preparations and planning the Administration has undertaken regarding potential retaliation by the Iranian regime against Americans abroad and here at home" he tweeted Friday afternoon. "I have grave concerns that President Trump and his Administration have not provided the American people with a comprehensive strategy on Iran."
The assassination of Qasem Soleimani makes him the highest-ranking foreign military commander the U.S. has taken out since 1943, when U.S. forces in the pacific theater during WWII shot down a plane carrying the architect of the Pearl Harbor attacks.
Iran has already vowed retaliation for the death of their beloved commander, and the country already held memorial ceremonies in Tehran.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is deploying another 3,500 troops to the Middle East, as was anticipated, in the likely event of further retaliation from Iran. What Iran will do next is unclear, but there are a number of potential targets the Islamic republic could go after.
It's important to contextualize how relations between the U.S. and Iran got to the current apex.
First, the Trump Administration withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Agreement, made under the Obama Administration in 2015. The agreement was widely praised by international leaders in the P5+1 group as a way to keep the peace in the Middle East. The deal made sure Iran would not enrich uranium to levels capable of creating nuclear weapons, and Iran dramatically reduced the number of devices that can enrich uranium as well as limiting nuclear research and development to one facility capable of enriching uranium.
If Iran were to create a nuclear weapon, and by consequence become a nuclear power, it could have severe international repercussions in the Middle East as other countries would work to create their own nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Others fear it would cause nuclear proliferation in the region and allow terrorist groups to access a WMD in some capacity.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the global nuclear watchdog, routinely monitored Iranian nuclear facilities, and consistently reported Iran was not in the process of making a nuclear weapon.
Only in recent months, since the U.S. withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal, has Iran started to enrich uranium to levels prohibited under the agreement. This is not only drawing international condemnation, it's also legitimate grounds for the U.S. and other allied forces to take action to deter Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Since then, Iran has become increasingly aggressive in the Middle East.
In June, a Japanese oil tanker traveling through the Gulf of Oman was attacked. U.S. defense officials say the tanker was blasted by mines that Iranians stuck to the ship, and released video evidence to support their claims.
A week later, Iran shot down a U.S. military drone, claiming it entered Iranian territory. U.S. officials claim the drone was shot down in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, very close to where the oil tanker was attacked.
The U.S. military was going to attack key Iranian military installations in the wake of the drone downing, but President Trump called off a strike ten minutes before forces were ready to strike. He said 150 Iranians would have died in the attacks.
The Trump Administration has repeatedly blamed Iran for a drone attack on a Saudi Oil field, happening in September last year. While Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen claimed responsibility for the drone attack, Iran is known to support the rebels there by proxy, including training them for drone warfare.
The President didn't take any military action in the wake of that attack, which was much more significant than the previous two provocations from Iran.
So, it's possible Iran could take similar actions in the Strait of Hormuz, or go after Saudi Arabia. A prime ally for the U.S. in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a series of proxy wars with Iran for several years. The two countries broke off diplomatic ties with each other in 2016, when Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the country executed an Iranian cleric.
It's also possible Iran, or Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, will attack Israel. The Jewish nation-state has been targeting Iran for decades, as it supports Israel's primary opposition groups: Hezbollah and Hamas.
Israeli leaders are already on high alert, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the assassination of Soleimani the right course of action.
"Soleimani is responsible for the death of American citizens and many other innocent people. He was planning more such attacks... Israel stands with the United States in its just struggle for peace, security and self-defense."
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has already advised Americans in Iraq to evacuate the country, fearing similar attacks to the ones earlier this week in Baghdad.
At a time when foreign foes, including Iran and Russia, are committing more resources time to taking ground in the Middle East, losing Iraq is a nonstarter.
As foreign policy expert Max Boot writes in The Washington Post, "At the very least, the blowback over Soleimani’s death could force the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq. That would be a major victory for Iran."
More likely than that, however, is the heightened possibility Iran will attack a U.S. post somewhere in the Middle East. The U.S. has multiple military bases adjacent to Iran, including neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 60,000 troops in the region.
Also very possible: a cyber attack.
The Iranian Cyber army likely has some 2,400 professionals, run by the IRGC. Iranian hackers have been observed breaching critical Saudi infrastructure, including spear-phishing emails to allow hackers to gain control of a computer. That's according to a report published in Foreign Policy in September, 2019.
It wouldn't be the first time the Iranians have successfully attacked Saudi Arabia, either. In 2012, the Iranian hacker group "Cutting Sword of Justice" used code to override data on hard drives in Saudi oil company computers. The same group also sabotaged more than 30,000 computers using a virus.
The repercussions for any military course of action by Iran or the United States would be cataclysmic. Retired General and former Defense Secretary James Mattis said he was confident the U.S. could handle a conflict with Iran, should one break out. But, he cautioned against another war in the Middle East would be a "catastrophe", saying warfare "is an unpredictable phenomenon."
That seems to be reflective of the current atmosphere.