Explainer: Trump vs Iran, and what’s next

The US assassination of General Qasem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliatory strikes did not, as many feared, take the two countries to the brink of war, but the resulting tensions could further impact peacekeeping efforts especially with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme. Harry Lye reports.

// The Type 23 frigates are at the heart of the Royal Navy's presence in the Middle East. Image: Crown Copyright / MOD

What happened to spark tensions?

On 3 January, the US killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, in a targeted drone strike. According to the US, the assassination was intended to prevent attacks being planned by Soleimani against US military personnel and diplomats.

The US said the drone strike was undertaken in response to the 27 December attack on a coalition base in Iraq which resulted in the death of a US contractor, and the later attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone by members of Iranian-backed Kata'ib Hezbollah militia.

Who was General Qasem Soleimani?

Soleimani was a pivotal figure in Iran’s network of foreign influence as the head of the Quds force. A popular figure in Iran, he was close to the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Soleimani came to prominence during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 instigated by Saddam Hussain. He proved himself in the conflict and was later appointed to the head of the Quds force.

Soleimani took an influential and often personal role in the cultivation of Iran’s influence in the Middle East, including the country’s support of Syrian president Bashar Al ’Assad and a number of proxy groups across Iraq and Lebanon, in particular Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and Shi’ite militia groups that form a part of the Iraqi army.

Before his death, he and the Quds force were labelled as terrorists by the US, marking the first time the US had ever branded a faction of a foreign military as a terrorist organisation. Upon his death, his deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, replaced Soleimani as the head of the Quds force.

What was the immediate response to the assassination?

Threats of retaliation were on the lips of Iranian officials in the immediate aftermath of the drone strike, while other countries across the world called for a de-escalation of tensions. Iraq’s parliament, at the behest of the country’s prime minister, voted to ask foreign military forces to leave the country.

The UK raised the alert level of its forces in the region, moved non-essential personnel out of Baghdad and resumed escorting commercial shipping through the Strait of Hormuz for fears that they may become targets of reprisals.

NATO allies began to withdraw their forces from the country before things took a turn on 7 January when Iran began retaliatory missile strikes on bases housing US personnel in Iraq. The overnight attack originated directly from Iran, with over a dozen strikes directed against the Al-Assad air base west of Baghdad and another base just outside the Northern Iraqi city of Irbil.

What happened next?

The world held its breath waiting for the US response, however, early indicators showed the missile attack was the start of a de-escalation of tensions. On the night of the attack US President Donald Trump tweeted: “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.”

Meanwhile Iranian officials said its retaliation efforts had “concluded”.

The next day Trump reaffirmed an earlier commitment stating that the US would never let Iran develop a nuclear weapon, and said that European partners should walk away from the Iran nuclear deal. This move re-committed the US to a path of sanctioning Iran, rather than intervening.

Later it emerged that on the night of the missile attack, Iran also shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, killing 176 people. The crash has sparked on-going protests in Iran.

The future of the nuclear deal

The biggest question now, after the US and Iran pulled back from the brink of war, is the Iran Nuclear Deal. While Trump reasserted his preference for the deal to be dissolved, European partners have on many occasions shown support for the deal and the progress it had made before the US pulled out.

With the US taking a hard line on Iran, the UK, France and Germany issued a statement committing to the future of the deal. However, Iran has signalled its intention to pull away from the deal. If Iran now sets itself on a course to developing a nuclear weapon, another clash with the US may be on the cards again soon.