PODCAST: Political science professor breaks down US relations with Iran

By Fiona O'Brien | February 17, 2020 4:08pm
by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Earlier this year on Jan. 3, President Trump authorized the killing of Iranian General Qaasem Solemani near the Baghdad airport. President Trump said he made the decision because Solemani was seen as a threat to Americans. However, there was not a specific threat from Solemani at the time before his death. 

Though Solemani was well-loved by the Iranian people and had mass amounts of power in Iraq and Iran, he was the leader for Iran’s Quds force, a group officially recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States. Under his leadership, the Quds force took control of Shia militias in Iraq and Iran and funded the militant organization Hezbollah in Lebanon. Some of the issues faced by U.S. troops in Iraq came from proxy-militias led by Solemani. 

The Iranians were very upset following the killing. In the U.S., however, people took to social media, worrying about a possible World War III. People were angry with the administration for jeopardizing its people by killing a top general from another country. 

This is a complicated situation that needs some clarity. The Beacon sat down with Professor Anne Santiago from the Political Science and Global Affairs department to ease some tensions among discussions and describe what really took place. 

Below is a transcription of the podcast.

Fiona O'Brien:
Days after the world's welcome to new decade, a United States drone killed general Qasem Soleimani
outside of the Baghdad airport in Iraq. Soleimani was a prominent Iranian general who had a lot of
power within the region and was very well loved by the Iranians.

Fiona O'Brien:
Though it is unclear why President Trump made this extreme decision, it has created many different
reactions in the United States and Iran. On social media, many ideas were spread about a possible world
war three because the United States' tense past with the Iranians and the Iranians alleged nuclear

Fiona O'Brien:
My name is Fiona O'Brien. I'm a news reporter for the Beacon and I'm here today with Dr. Santiago,
professor from the political science and global affairs department. She's here to help ease some of the
tensions and describe what's going to happen in the next couple of weeks.

Fiona O'Brien:
So to begin, can you give me some context between the relationship between the United States and the
Iranians in the past 10 years or so?

Sure. The history goes back a little bit longer and it's important to know that a lot of the Western powers
were involved in Iran from the early 20th century up until the present. But the two significant things in
the 20th century that have led to where we are today, I would say, are the overthrow of Mosaddegh in
the early 1950s which led to the US supported regime of the Shah of Iran.

And then that regime was overthrown in 1979 by the people who supported the Ayatollah, the
Ayatollah Khomeini. So those are the two significant historical things. And then since then 1979, the US
and Iran have not had any sort of direct relationship. And because of that, Iran has also been seen as a
bad actor in the region and has sponsored various terrorist organizations in the region. And so it's been
on our sort of enemies list for a long time.

In the past 10 years, Iran has been involved in building a nuclear program. A program that they have
always claimed was not to be used militarily, but was to be used for domestic purposes. And part of the
problem for Iran has been that because it's seen as this bad actor and because it's been a sponsor of
terrorism, it has been sanctioned by a lot of states across the world. So its economy has suffered a lot
because of that.

So, US policy across Republican or Democratic regimes have all been, Iran is not an actor that we should
be engaged with. That changed with President Obama who basically said, look, these other policies
we've had for 30 years have not been particularly effective. It hasn't changed the behavior of Iran. And
so why don't we engage? And the Europeans of course have been more willing engage than the
Americans generally speaking.

And so the Obama administration, along with numerous European allies and Russia, put together what
was called the Iran nuclear deal, which basically said we are going to lift sanctions on our part, on the
West part, while Iran promises to halt its nuclear program as far as enriching uranium goes. And that
Iran would also allow in inspectors.

So it was to be a verified program and it was set up as a 15 year program in order to allow for time to
see if they could build a relationship and if this verification would work and if Iran would actually stop
enriching the uranium. So Obama put this into place, the Europeans have been working with it. The
reports coming out is that it has been working. And then of course we get a transition in the United
States with President Trump and Trump campaigned on basically overthrowing everything that Obama
had put into place.

And one of the very first things that he did is withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. So
that set off of course consternation in Iran, the European still tried to work with Iran and keep the deal
going. But the US you reimposed sanctions, put more pressure on Iran, and then we get the
assassination of Soleimani. So that's where we're at.

Fiona O'Brien:
And who was Soleimani and why is he so important? And also what led Trump to kill him especially?

Okay. Soleimani, he was involved way back in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran with the Ayatollah. So
he enlisted himself in the military and started fighting in his teen years and was involved in also like the
Iran Iraq war. Actually, I don't think he was involved in the overthrow, sorry. He's not old enough to be
that, but he was involved in the Iran Iraq War and he basically became one of the biggest leaders within
the Iranian military.

He's a general. He was seen as responsible for coordinating all of the different efforts that Iran has in the
region, and supporting various militia groups or terrorist organizations.

Fiona O'Brien:
And what are some of those groups?

Well, like Hezbollah. Definitely some of the groups in Iraq that are Shia led. I don't have the names of
them. What Iran was not supporting was say ISIS. Right? Because that's a Sunni led militia, a terrorist
organization. But anywhere that Iran saw especially Shia minority groups in Syria, in Iraq. They were big
supporters of some of the Palestinian militant groups in their fight against Israel.

So Iran was supporting them financially with weapons. And this guy Soleimani was basically the
coordinator for all of that. So he was a very high up person within the Iranian military. Apparently, there
had been a lot of tracking of his activities. And this is across administrations for a very long time. Right.

The intelligence that has come out in some of the press reports are that various presidents prior to
Trump have had similar intelligence about where he is, what he's doing, and have had opportunities to
assassinate him. But they chose not to because they thought that that would actually lead to more
instability, poor cooperation in the region. And it probably wasn't a good idea.

Why Trump chose to do this, I really don't know, other than I think he probably saw it as another way of
attacking Iran directly and another way of showing the world that he can make these big foreign policy
decisions. He thinks this is something that's more significant than killing Osama bin Laden, for example,
that this is going to make a name for the United States, show that we're extremely tough and that we're
not going to put up with anything in the region.

Fiona O'Brien:
Even though this man was seen as evil and many people said that he killed a lot of Americans, so you still
think it's right to kill a general or someone high up from another country, no matter how evil they're

I don't think it's a good idea either strategically or morally, quite frankly. If we are in a war situation,
then everybody is a target in the military. Right. But we've never considered that we are in a war
situation with Iran. And the idea that he has killed or been responsible for killing a number of Americans
I think is certainly legitimate. But I would also say that the United States has to look at itself and
consider how many lives it is responsible for killing in the Middle East as well. So we can play a game of
trying to come up with moral equivalence as to who is the more evil regime, who is the more evil

My personal view of the situation is if the United States worked to try to cooperate a lot more with
various peoples in the Middle East, we'd have a lot less conflict.

Fiona O'Brien:
And what has been the backlash of the death of General Soleimani Iran and the United States and all
foreign policy?

Yeah. So the killing of Soleimani led to a number of reactions, right? So everybody in Iran, there was this
huge outpouring of grief, right? It would be like taking out the head of the joint chiefs of staff in the
United States. Okay. So this is a big... And coming from a foreign government, a direct strike within your
area. So say head of the joint chiefs of staff is visiting Ottawa, Canada and they take him out there with a
drone. That's the kind of thing.

So, we need to understand what that means for the people of Iran. Once that happened, of course there
was a lot of upset with the United States, a lot of raised rhetoric within Iran. And Iran struck at a military
installation in Iraq. Right. I'm not privy to intelligence, but my read of it is that they struck back in a tit
for tat sort of thing as states do, but without the intention of causing a huge number of deaths because
that would ratchet it up.

I think if they had wanted to, they certainly could have killed a lot more Americans. Right? No Americans
were actually killed. They had advanced warning of this. So I think they were trying to send a message to
the United States to basically back off, we have the capacity to ratchet this up. And I think they didn't
really want to ratchet it up too much because they know the strength of the US military.

Right. So the attack on the US installation happens. But one of the interesting things too was that the
protests started in Iran against the government of Iran as well for not really following through in a way
that was helpful to the Iranian people. So it's not like Iran is this monolith where every single person
agrees with everything that the government does just like in the United States. So understanding some
of the dynamics there I think are really important.

And as far as foreign policy goes, I don't think it's helpful in any way for what the US wants to
accomplish in the Middle East. I think too many administrations in the United States over time have not
really understood the dynamics in the Middle East very well. Particularly, the higher up you go. I think
people like in the state department who work at the Iran desk or the Iraq desk, they're the experts and
they're who in many cases we should be listening to because... and military personnel, they know what's
at stake. Right?

Fiona O'Brien:
And then the million dollar question as people have been tweeting and posting on Instagram
everywhere, this is going to be world war three. Obviously it's a little bit more complicated than that.
But do you have anything to say to ease tensions or comment on world war three?

Yeah, I don't think we're going to end up in world war three. I think especially within the military
establishment in the United States, they know full well what that would mean, right? Putting more
troops on the ground. Engaging in full scale military engagement with Iran is not something we want to
take on. Right. Anytime we've tried to go into a Middle Eastern country and basically pounded into
submission, it has not gone our way in the long run, you know?

So I think there are plenty of people within our government, especially those people who are the career
civil servants, whether it's military or state department, they know that this is a fool's errand. Right. And
I think a lot of the talk about world war three came up because there was some sort of glitch going on in
the selective service website. So what happened... Then when they become 18 years, will have to
register with the civil service.

And something happened where people, I think it was on social media actually, where these popups
were coming about registering with the civil service. And I think a lot of people interpreted that as, oh,
they're going to start conscripting us into the military again. But we've never had a draft since Vietnam
and there's no intention of calling up a draft right now. So I think cooler heads have prevailed. The
government has set out a message that we are not drafting people into the military. So I don't think
there are immediate concerns that we're going to see world war three. And I think frankly we can also
rely on our allies in Europe to help calm tensions down. And I think we're already seeing some of this
happening right now.

Fiona O'Brien:
Do you think there'll be any more escalations between the United States and around in the next few
weeks or so?

I wouldn't say in the next few weeks necessarily, but I would say that Iran is not going to forget this and
Iran is going to continue to try to get the US out of the Middle East altogether. It's going to try to
continue to assert what it sees as a foreign policy that's reasonable for the Middle East. And I think Iran
thinks in terms of thousands of years and the US sees things in terms of decades. We need to start
thinking longer term, I would say, in our foreign policy. But we're the great power and we have been for
a long time and we still think we can dominate the world.

Fiona O'Brien:
Politically, in terms of Trump's presidency and the impeachment and the election coming up, do you
think this has any effect on him and his support or the opinion about him?

Yeah, I guess I would say that I don't think this is going to bring anyone who's not already a Trump
supporter to the table of Trump supporters. I think what we've seen over the last three years is that his
support has stayed extremely loyal through every single thing that we have seen his administration do
and nothing is going to sway that.

I don't think bombing Iran or taking out Soleimani is going to bring anyone who's not already a Trump
supporter to his support, because people see this as a destabilizing situation. It's not something that is
showing American might and strength. Like we're going to just have another cake walk. We've had a
long, long war in Iraq and we're still there and we haven't gotten the end result that we've wanted. So I
think a lot of people are very weary.

As far as impeachment goes, I don't think that's going anywhere. I don't think the killing of Soleimani
really probably had anything to do with Trump being impeached, but I don't think it's going to sway
anybody on that front either.

Fiona O'Brien:
Thank you so much. Do you have anything else you want to say about it?

No, the only thing I would say to students is try to read as much news as you can and different varieties
in order to really understand, don't just rely on social media. That's not going to get you what you need
to know about what's going on in the world.

Fiona O'Brien:
Thank you so much.

Yeah. Thank you.

Fiona O'Brien is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at obrienf21@up.edu.