The extrajudicial killing of Iranian official Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi Al-Mohandis by US forces last week will set back Western-Iranian relations by decades, with repercussions not only across the region but across the world.
It is difficult for us in the West to understand just who Soleimani was (and remains) to the Iranian people, as well as to persecuted Shia Muslims and minorities across the region and beyond.
As well as being the head of one of the most important military organisations in Iran, which was pivotal to the security balance in the nation and the region, he was also a decorated war hero and national treasure. In his life, but even more so in his death, he has united Iran’s various political and religious groupings which, in contrast to the uniform way in which they are often presented in global media, are in fact split between countless political constituencies and alliances.
These divisions are no more: the external threat of extrajudicial US acts in the region has united Iranians - in both the elite as well as on the street - like never before.
Outside Iran’s borders, the reaction will be a similar one within Muslim communities, many of which owe their survival in the face of Islamic State to militias, a large number of which were trained under Soleimani’s command. Already shaken in recent days by US strikes, many will remind policymakers in western capitals that the defeat of Islamic State was only possible because of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), the ranks of which were full of volunteers loyal to Soleimani.
This is a story we seldom hear: that despite the complexities of the US-Iran relationship, the fight against Islamic State was only won through the resistance led by Soleimani – who was successful where all other attempts - whether US or locally-led - failed. The US and its allies have been quick to publicise the Kurds’ fight against Islamic State; less so the Iraqi (and by extension Iranian) fight against the shared foe.
Beyond communal tensions and feelings of betrayal, this is a grim reminder of the international order (or rather disorder) that we are inheriting as we enter a new decade. This was an extrajudicial killing of an Iraqi officer whose unit is part of the Iraqi armed forces, and an Iranian officer who was in the country with the permission of the Iraqi government.
There was a time at the start of the new century when America was, for a short time, behaving as judge, jury and executioner in the world. It appears that, after a brief respite in between, the United States is returning to that role.
But this is not something the world can afford. The uses and abuses of social media mean it is easier than ever to incite the masses. And the US appetite for foreign misadventure has never been lower, particularly since Trump’s platform has been built on avoiding unnecessary foreign wars which come with a high price in both blood and gold.
The mood in Tehran is different than at any moment in recent years. At a time when some in Iran were growing weary of the country’s entanglement in foreign conflict, Trump’s act of aggression has united them across political and religious divides like never before. Reformists and conservatives, modernists and revolutionaries; they all agree that their citizens should not be fair game for US drones.
One thing, above all, is certain: no one will again be discussing the Iran deal for a long, long, time. In death, Qassem Soleimani has become even more of a figurehead for his country’s resistance to external pressure. In the hours after the fatal strike, it has become clear that the masses and civil society worldwide are uniting in their opposition to what was an extrajudicial killing. The question remains how the international community - so weakened by Trump’s braggadocio – will respond.
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