The January 3, 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil marked an escalation in already simmering U.S.-Iran tensions. For Iraqi leaders, the Soleimani strike exacerbated an already challenging balancing act in maintaining Baghdad’s relationships with the United States and Iran, with whom it shares a long border and religious and social ties. During the past tumultuous year for Iraq, U.S. forces and Iranian-allied armed groups engaged in tit-for-tat attacks in Iraq. USIP’s Elie Abouaoun and Sarhang Hamasaeed look at how U.S.-Iran tensions played out last year in Iraq and the region and if the incoming U.S. administration, and its desire to reengage in nuclear talks with Iran, could help allay the impact on Iraq.
Iran, proud and passionate, has been a conundrum since its 1979 revolution. For decades, a confluence of challenges—political and cultural repression, menacing rhetoric, and defiance over its nuclear program—complicated dealing with the Islamic Republic. Iran’s revolution has passed through at least five phases.
Of all the pressing issues in the volatile Middle East—wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, unstable Iraq, imploding Lebanon, and the 10,000 ISIS fighters and other al-Qaida franchises still on the loose—the most pressing for President-elect Joe Biden will be Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He has repeatedly promised to rejoin the nuclear deal, brokered by the world’s six major powers in 2015, which Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018.
For decades, Iran has vexed the international community. It introduced Islam as a form of governance in 1979 and has supported militants abroad and defied international norms. In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated by six world powers and Iran. The administration argued that the deal did not adequately curb Tehran’s nuclear program or address its missile program, human rights abuses, and support for terror.
Beginning with the early January killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, the first months of 2020 have seen a spike in long-simmering tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Those tensions have largely played out within the borders of Iran’s western neighbor, Iraq, just as they have for much of the last 17 years. Still bearing the battle scars from years of war, few in the region want to see an escalation to more overt conflict. And after nearly two decades, the American public has clearly demonstrated its own fatigue with endless wars. The question remains, then, how can the U.S. achieve its objectives in regard to Iran and Iraq without military action?
Iran’s outbreak has been the worst in the Middle East by far and there are concerns that the pandemic’s spread is significantly worse than reported by Iranian authorities. The virus hit at a particularly bad time for Iran with the economy already suffering from the impact of U.S. sanctions. USIP’s Garrett Nada discusses the debate over the number of cases, Tehran’s decision to ease containment measures, and whether the coronavirus crisis could open the door to de-escalation with the United States.
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads in both countries, USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed examines the obstacles facing Iraq’s newly appointed prime minister, as well as whether addressing the crisis might open the door for de-escalation between the U.S. and Iran, saying, “I do hope that these unfortunate challenges still come with some opportunity.”
Iranians head to the polls on February 21 to elect their next parliament. Following the violent suppression of protests in November and the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane in January, many are deeply disillusioned with Iran’s political system. Most reformist candidates have been barred from competing in the election, leaving voters with virtually no alternative to hardliners. The elections come as U.S.-Iran tensions are simmering after the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and as the country’s economy is foundering. USIP’S Garrett Nada looks at what issues are on the top of voters’ minds and how foreign policy will factor into the vote.
Rising tensions between the United States and Iran—illustrated and exacerbated by the January 3 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani—are rippling out beyond the Middle East. Now, American officials are voicing growing concern about Iranian activities in Afghanistan. In recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Iran is supporting militant groups in the country and seeking to undermine the peace process between the U.S. and the Taliban. A top U.S. general for the region, meanwhile, warned that Iranian actions in Afghanistan pose a risk to the approximately 14,000 American troops deployed there.
Iran has been rocked by a series of developments in recent months, from the mass protests over raised fuel prices to the killing of powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani. Over the weekend, protesters returned to the streets, spurred by the military’s mistaken downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet. As in past protests, like 2009, the government has met demonstrators with a draconian and violent response. USIP’s Garrett Nada and Maria Stephan explain how the protests have evolved over time and how demonstrators could use nonviolent tactics against the repressive regime.