The drone strike on Iranian general and black ops mastermind Qasem Soleimani in Iraq raises questions of legality and has heightened tensions in the region. Is a war between the US and Iran now inevitable?

Your Host: Fabian A. Scherschel

Originally, I was planning a show on another topic, but obviously, developments in the Middle East mean we have to urgently look at what’s happening there. I also did try to get this show recorded and released a bit quicker, but a severe manflu meant I wasn’t in any condition to broadcast for a few days – I apologise for this delay.

Feedback

I had some feedback via the Fediverse on Broadcast 4 about Ring video doorbells and security cameras.

And Mike, who guest-hosted Broadcast 3 with me, sent me this story relating to Broadcast 1 and the Trump / Ukraine phone call:

Airstrike in Baghdad

Baghdad Map

Map of Baghdad — CNN

US drone strike ordered by Trump kills top Iranian commander in Baghdad [CNN]

US President Donald Trump has said that he ordered a precision strike to “terminate” a top Iranian commander who was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks” on Americans, adding that the decision was one of deterrence rather than aggression. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump said in a statement from his Mar-a-Lago resort on Friday, a day after a US drone strike on a Baghdad airport killed Qasem Soleimani.

The move marks a major escalation in regional tensions that have pitted Tehran against Washington and its allies in the Middle East, raising the specter of further regional destabilization. The strike, condemned by Iran and its allies as an “assassination,” has been met with concern by European officials and the United Nations, who have called for de-escalation.

The Trump administration viewed Soleimani as a ruthless killer, and the President told reporters Friday that the general should have been taken out by previous presidents.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has vowed “harsh revenge,” according to a statement published to his official website.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – the deputy head of the Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – was also killed, according to a statement from the PMF, which said the pair “were martyred by an American strike.” Early Saturday, the group said another airstrike that targeted a convoy in the Taji area north of Baghdad killed and wounded a number of PMF members. The initial report indicates a medical units convoy was hit near Taji Stadium in Baghdad, the PMF said. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Baghdad Strike

Aftermath of the attack at Baghdad International Airport — CNN

As Tensions With Iran Escalated, Trump Opted for Most Extreme Measure [The New York Times]

In the chaotic days leading to the death of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, top American military officials put the option of killing him – which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq – on the menu they presented to President Trump.

They didn’t think he would take it. In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable. After initially rejecting the Suleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group instead, a few days later Mr. Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials. By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

Rationale for the Strike

Mr. Trump made the decision, senior officials said on Saturday, despite disputes in the administration about the significance of what some officials said was a new stream of intelligence that warned of threats to American embassies, consulates and military personnel in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. General Suleimani had just completed a tour of his forces in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and was planning an “imminent” attack that could claim hundreds of lives, those officials said.

But some officials voiced private skepticism about the rationale for a strike on General Suleimani, who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over the years. According to one United States official, the new intelligence indicated “a normal Monday in the Middle East” – Dec. 30 – and General Suleimani’s travels amounted to “business as usual.” That official described the intelligence as thin and said that General Suleimani’s attack was not imminent because of communications the United States had between Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and General Suleimani showing that the ayatollah had not yet approved any plans by the general for an attack. The ayatollah, according to the communications, had asked General Suleimani to come to Tehran for further discussions at least a week before his death.

Mossad chief: Iran’s Soleimani “knows his assassination is not impossible” [The Times of Israel]

In an interview published Thursday, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen said a potential Israeli assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was “not impossible.”

In a profile piece for ultra-Orthodox newspaper Mishpacha, Cohen was asked about Soleimani’s claim that Israeli aircraft targeted him and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. “With all due respect to his bluster, he hasn’t necessarily committed the mistake yet that would place him on the prestigious list of Mossad’s assassination targets,” Cohen said. “He knows very well that his assassination is not impossible. His actions are identified and felt everywhere… there’s no doubt the infrastructure he built presents a serious challenge for Israel.” Iranian media also reported last week that Tehran stopped an “Israel-Arab” plot to eliminate Soleimani.

Report: U.S. Gives Israel Green Light to Assassinate Iranian General Soleimani [Haaretz]

Al-Jarida, which in recent years had broken exclusive stories from Israel, quoted a source in Jerusalem as saying that “there is an American-Israeli agreement” that Soleimani is a “threat to the two countries’ interests in the region.” It is generally assumed in the Arab world that the paper is used as an Israeli platform for conveying messages to other countries in the Middle East.

The agreement between Israel and the United States, according to the report, comes three years after Washington thwarted an Israeli attempt to kill the general. The report says Israel was “on the verge” of assassinating Soleimani three years ago, near Damascus, but the United States warned the Iranian leadership of the plan, revealing that Israel was closely tracking the Iranian general. The incident, the report said, “sparked a sharp disagreement between the Israeli and American security and intelligence apparatuses regarding the issue.”

Inside the plot by Iran’s Soleimani to attack U.S. forces in Iraq [Reuters]

In mid-October, Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani met with his Iraqi Shi’ite militia allies at a villa on the banks of the Tigris River, looking across at the U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad. The Revolutionary Guards commander instructed his top ally in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and other powerful militia leaders to step up attacks on U.S. targets in the country using sophisticated new weapons provided by Iran, two militia commanders and two security sources briefed on the gathering told Reuters.

The strategy session, which has not been previously reported, came as mass protests against Iran’s growing influence in Iraq were gaining momentum, putting the Islamic Republic in an unwelcome spotlight. Soleimani’s plans to attack U.S. forces aimed to provoke a military response that would redirect that rising anger toward the United States, according to the sources briefed on the gathering, Iraqi Shi’ite politicians and government officials close to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Soleimani’s efforts ended up provoking the U.S. attack on Friday that killed him and Muhandis, marking a major escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran.

Legality of the Drone Strike

Under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the President must “notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without a congressional authorization for use of military force (AUMF) or a declaration of war by the United States.”

However, Congress passed a permanent AUMF for the “War on Terror” in 2011 that allows the President full authority in planing and executing such strikes where “those responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001 and any associated forces” are concerned. Beginning with the Obama administration, this has essentially been taking to mean all Arab-based terrorists.

GOP: Obama war request is dead [The Hill]

If Congress doesn’t pass an AUMF, Obama will continue carrying out military airstrikes against ISIS extremists using an outdated authorization passed by Congress in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

How is an unannounced air strike against a military official in another, unaffiliated peace-time country not terrorism in itself?

Who was Qasem Soleimani?

The 100 Most Influential People 2017: Major General Qasem Soleimani [Time Magazine]

To Middle Eastern Shi’ites, he is James Bond, Erwin Rommel and Lady Gaga rolled into one. To the West, he is the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – responsible for exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution, supporting terrorists, subverting pro-Western governments and waging Iran’s foreign wars. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Hajj Qasem, as he is known, took command of the Quds Force in the late 1990s. The Force is paymaster of Hizballah, Hamas and other terrorists plaguing Israel.

When the Assad regime faced defeat in 2012, it was Soleimani who brought in Shi’ite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan to Syria, and then the Russians in 2015. When ISIS overran northern Iraq, it was Soleimani who armed the Shi’ite militias and organized the defense of Baghdad, where his proxies had often ambushed U.S. troops. Soleimani is also a master of propaganda, posting selfies from battlefields across the region to convince one and all that he is the master of the Middle Eastern chessboard.

Kenneth Pollack on the BBC, commenting on Qasem Soleimani’s death [BBC / No Agenda]:

Kenneth M. Pollack [Wikipedia]

Kenneth Michael Pollack (born 1966) is a former CIA intelligence analyst and expert on Middle East politics and military affairs.

Qassem Soleimani Haunted the Arab World [The Atlantic]

Soleimani, a man thought of as invincible and all-powerful in the region, was killed at about 1 a.m. local time, just as he was leaving Baghdad airport. By 4:30 a.m., a group of Iraqis was marching – running, even – though the country’s capital carrying a large Iraqi flag, celebrating his death. In one video, a man’s voice can be heard lauding the killing, saying the deaths of Iraqi protesters had been avenged.

Soleimani was respected and feared, seen as either the evil mastermind behind policies of death and destruction or the genius architect of Iran’s expansionist policies. He was also hated, not only by Sunnis who suffered at the hands of his proxy militias in Syria and Iraq, but also by fellow Shias, including some in Iraq and Iran, where he helped uphold a repressive system and was seen as the man responsible for Iran’s role in costly wars abroad. He was not simply on a mission to undo the unsatisfying score of the Iran-Iraq war and make up for the conflict’s devastating death toll and the humiliation it served his country; he had become the mission, the upholder of the Islamic revolution, keeping it alive for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Soleimani was also key to defeating the Islamic State, but this served very specific purposes for the Iranian commander.)

More recently, in Iraq, he was instrumental in the violent crackdown against protests that had erupted in October. The protesters’ ire targeted not only the corruption and mismanagement of their own politicians, but Iran’s role in both, as well as its overbearing control over the country through proxy Shiite militias loyal to Tehran. “We in Iran know how to deal with protesters,” Soleimani had reportedly told Iraqi officials in October. “This happened in Iran and we got it under control.” Though Iraqis have continued to take to the streets, more than 500 of them have been killed. Demonstrations in Iran were also brutally crushed – more than 1,000 died in the crackdown there, according to Iranian officials.

Background on the Quds Force

Quds Force [Wikipedia]

The Quds Force (Persian: سپاه قدس‎ sepāh-e qods) is a unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) specializing in unconventional warfare and military intelligence operations. Responsible for extraterritorial operations, the Quds Force supports non-state actors in many countries, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Yemeni Houthis, and Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

Analysts estimate the Quds has 10,000–20,000 members. The Quds Force reports directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. It was commanded by Major General Qasem Soleimani until he was killed by a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad International Airport on 3 January 2020. Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani was appointed as commander of the Quds Force on the same day.

History

The Quds Force was created during the Iran–Iraq War as a special unit from the broader IRGC forces. It has the mission of liberating supposedly “Muslim land”, especially al-Quds, from which it takes its name – “Jerusalem Force,” in English. Both during and after the war, it provided support to the Kurds fighting Saddam Hussein. In 1982, a Quds unit was deployed to Lebanon, where it assisted in the genesis of Hezbollah. The Force also expanded its operations into neighboring Afghanistan, including assistance for Abdul Ali Mazari’s Shi’a Hezbe Wahdat in the 1980s against the government of Mohammad Najibullah. It then began funding and supporting Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

However, in recent years, the Quds Force is alleged to have been helping and guiding the Taliban insurgents against the NATO-backed Karzai administration. There were also reports of the unit lending support to Bosnian Muslims fighting the Bosnian Serbs during the Yugoslav wars.

In January 2010, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the mission of the Quds Force was expanded and the Force along with Hezbollah started a new campaign of attacks targeting not only the US and Israel but also other Western bodies.

The Quds Force seems to be a combination of a foreign intelligence service and a military special operations unit, roughly equivalent to the CIA coupled with the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

Hizballah and the Qods Force in Iran’s Shadow War with the West [Matthew Levitt, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy]

The net effect of Iran’s shadow war against the West is that Hizballah and the Qods Force have climbed back up the list of immediate threats facing the United States and its allies. These threats are quite real, despite the failure of Hizballah and the Qods Force to register many successes in their recent operational blitz. In the case of Hizballah, this poor track record has much to do with the atrophying of the group’s operational capabilities after 9/11. For the Qods Force, it reflects Tehran’s desperate desire to exact quick revenge for covert attacks against its nuclear program. Hizballah and the Qods Force traded speed for tradecraft and reaped what they sowed. In some cases, Iranian agents employed laughable operational security; in others, Iran dispatched bungling agents, like the Iranian-American car salesman Mansour Arbabsiar. But the recent failures of Hizballah and the Qods Force give Western counterterrorism officials little comfort. As the attack in Burgas demonstrated, terrorists learn from their mistakes, evolve, and adapt, and with sufficient determination they may carry out successful attacks even after a long string of failures.

Indeed, officials fear that both Hizballah and the Qods Force are likely to recover from their operational sloppiness. True, the world in general and the West in particular have become far more vigilant over the past several years, making it more difficult than before for terrorist groups to execute successful attacks. But Iranian leaders appear committed to a policy of targeting Western interests, not only in places where countermeasures may be comparatively underdeveloped (e.g., Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, India, Georgia, Thailand) but, if opportunities present themselves, even in world capitals like Washington, D.C.

“During his FBI service, Levitt participated as a team member in a number of crisis situations, including the terrorist threat surrounding the turn of the millennium and the September 11 attacks.” [Wikipedia]

Prelude to the Attack

Infographic

Iraqi supporters of Iran-backed militia attack U.S. embassy [Politico]

Dozens of angry Iraqi Shiite militia supporters broke into the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad on Tuesday after smashing a main door and setting fire to a reception area, prompting tear gas and sounds of gunfire. Dozens of protesters pushed into the compound after smashing the gate used by cars to enter the embassy. The protesters, many in militia uniform, stopped in a corridor after about 5 meters (16 feet), and were only about 200 meters away from the main building. Half a dozen U.S. soldiers were seen on the roof of the main building, their guns were pointed at the protesters. It wasn’t immediately known whether the embassy staff had remained inside the main building or were evacuated at some point. There was no immediate comment from the U.S. Embassy.

The embassy attack, one of the worst in recent memory, followed deadly U.S. airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the airstrikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that it had blamed on the militia.

US embassy attack: Protesters withdraw after standoff in Iraq [BBC]

Tuesday’s attack – which sparked a war of words between US President Donald Trump and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – had threatened to escalate, with the US defence secretary announcing the deployment of additional troops to the region. But by Wednesday evening, the Iraqi government announced that all groups had withdrawn from the perimeter of the US embassy in Baghdad following an appeal for calm.

Iran denies role in U.S. embassy violence, warns against retaliation [Reuters]

Iran denied it was behind violent protests at the U.S. embassy in Iraq on Tuesday and warned against any retaliation, after President Donald Trump blamed Tehran for an attack on the mission and said it would be held responsible.

The Wider US / Iran Conflict

No Agenda jingle “Bomb Iran”:

The “Wag the Dog” Theory

Timeline of the Conflict

  1. 1979: Iranian Revolution [Wikipedia]
  2. 1979: Iran hostage crisis [Wikipedia]
  3. Iran–United States relations after 1979 [Wikipedia]
  4. 1980 - 1988: United States support for Iraq during the Iran–Iraq War [Wikipedia]
  5. 1988: Iran Air Flight 655 [Wikipedia]
  6. 2002: The Axis of Evil [Wikipedia]
  7. 2011: Iran–U.S. RQ-170 incident [Wikipedia]
  8. Strait of Hormuz [Wikipedia]
  9. May 2019 Gulf of Oman incident [Wikipedia]
  10. 2019 Iranian shoot-down of American drone [Wikipedia]

Current Developments

Trump Threatens Iranian Cultural Sites, and Warns of Sanctions on Iraq [The New York Times]

President Trump on Sunday evening doubled down on his claim that he would target Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliated for the targeted killing of one of its top generals, and threatened “very big sanctions” on Iraq if American troops are forced to leave the country.

Aboard Air Force One on his way back from his holiday trip to Florida, Mr. Trump reiterated to reporters the spirit of a Twitter post on Saturday, when he said the United States government had identified 52 sites for retaliation against Iran if there were a response to Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani’s death. Some, he tweeted, were of “cultural” significance. Such a move could be considered a war crime under international laws, but Mr. Trump said Sunday that he was undeterred.

“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people,” the president said. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

Attacking Iran’s Cultural Sites Would Violate the Hague Cultural Property Convention [Lawfare]

Iranians raise blood red “flags of revenge” as they vow to hit back after US killed general Qassem Soleimani [The Daily Mail]

According to local reports it is the first time in the Qom mosque’s history – a holy site since the Middle Ages – that the red flag has been raised over the building.

US forces on high alert for possible Iranian drone attacks, and intelligence shows Iran moving military equipment [CNN]

US intelligence had observed Iran moving military equipment, including drones and ballistic missiles, over the last several days. US officials said the movement may have been an Iranian effort to secure its weapons from a potential US strike, or put them in positions to launch their own attacks.

Iran fires missiles at multiple bases housing US troops in Iraq [CNBC]

Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against multiple bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq, Pentagon officials said on Tuesday. U.S. stock futures plunged on Tuesday night following the news.

No casualties were immediately reported in the strikes. The White House decided against a formal address to the nation Tuesday night.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted after the attack that “we do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Zarif tweeted.

Ukrainian Boeing plane crashes in Iran shortly after takeoff, killing 176 on board [CNN]

Investigators were scrambling Wednesday to determine the cause of a crash that killed all 176 people on board a plane that came down shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s international airport. The Boeing 737 jet, operated by Ukraine International Airlines, took off early on Wednesday en route to the Ukrainian capital Kiev with 167 passengers and nine crew on board.

Iran plane crash: Ukraine refuses to rule out Boeing 737 was shot down by missile near Tehran killing 176 [The Telegraph]

Initially, Ukraine’s embassy in Iran said on Wednesday morning that engine failure caused the plane to crash and denied that it was terror-related or that a rocket had hit the aircraft. But it later withdrew this statement, saying that anything was possible, and Mr Zelensky instructed Ukraine’s prosecutors to open criminal proceedings over the crash.

Crash: UIA B738 at Tehran on Jan 8th 2020, lost height after departure [The Aviation Herald]

A UIA Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800, registration UR-PSR performing flight PS-752 from Tehran Imam Khomeini (Iran) to Kiev (Ukraine) with 167 passengers and 9 crew, was climbing through 8000 feet out of Tehran’s runway 29R about 12nm northwest of the airport at about 06:18L (02:48Z), when the aircraft’s transponder signals ceased. The aircraft was found in an open field near Parand, a surbub of Tehran, at position N35.5529 E51.1121 about 10nm east of the last transponder position (N35.52 E50.91). All occupants perished in the crash.

Local residents videotaped an aircraft, presumably the UIA Boeing 737-800, while climbing out of Tehran, losing height and impacting ground. The voice on the video says he was in Ferdowsi Quarter of Shahriah (approx. position N35.5973 E51.0239 about 4nm southsouthwest of Shahriah), the aircraft was on fire (which obviously prompted the person to start filming), following some expressions of fear and asking for divine support for the people the voice states he now needed to call the fire department. The approximate position of the filmer is about 5nm northwest of the crash site.

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