Only a Face-off

Iran’s tit for tat after the General Qasem Soleimani killing by US drones is not expected to go much further because no nation wants an all-out war.

By Raja Rafi Ullah | February 2020

"On January 3, 2020, the United States military kicked off the new year by assassinating a powerful man in Iran, Major General Qasem Soleimani, through a drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport. Although the US in the past has carried out similar acts by breaching international borders, the brazen audacity of killing of the military man seemed reckless to many international observers, an act that has potentially risked the peace and security of the Middle East and beyond. Iran responded by targeting US military bases in Iraq with missile strikes, though no casualties were confirmed. Some after-effects of the Iranian missle strikes have been reported, though. Dozen’s of people died in a stampede in Soleimani’s funeral procession and a Ukrainian passenger plane was downed, killing all 176 on board, when Iranian forces targeted it with missiles – apparently by mistake taking it to be a US military plane.

A US-Iran face-off then began. It is important not to forget the bigger picture. A picture that is complex and is interlinked not only to the present state of affairs but also to the history of the US-Iran relationship. It has its beginnings in 1978. This was the the time when only a few years had passed since US military engagement in Vietnam. Britain was prepping for an election. France was hosting a foreign guest of a controversial nature - Ruhollah Khomeni. The protests against the US-backed Iranian monarch, Reza Shah Pahlavi, were intensifying. Those who wanted the Shah deposed were not only asking for an Islamic state, but also an end of the secular sections of the country’s socio-political fabric. It seemed as if the whole country had united against the Shah’s rule, with Ruhollah Khomeni emerging as the symbolic leader of the revolution. There was also a growing feeling in the West, despite its own strategic reluctance, that the Shah’s days were numbered and Iran was ready for a regime change.

1978 gave way to 1979. Raza Shah Pahlavi, sensing his time was up, fled Iran and Khomeni enetered Iran to a hero’s welcome. Within months of the Shah’s fleeing, following a popular referendum, Iran’s revolutionaries solidified their power by taking control of all the facets of the Iranian state machinery, including the military, the ministries and the media. If the overtly acrimonious stance against the West taken by the new Iranian government and Khomeni was not enough, what added further strength to it all was the takeover by the revolutionaries of the US Embassy in Tehran.

The embassy staff and other US personnel were taken hostage by the Iranians and they demanded that the US hand over the deposed Shah to them. Some 52 Americans ended up spending 444 days in the US embassy in Tehran. Six of them were helped by the Canadians to escape. This was the first time that the US and the West imposed severe economic sanctions on Iran, a trend that would be repeated on and off in the coming decades. The hostage crisis also served to cement Iran’s position as a pariah state in the US-led international world order.

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The writer is an international development practitioner and holds a Master’s degree in Public Affairs from Cornell University. He can be reached at

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