The killing of Soleimani was a watershed in the 40-year-old conflict between the US and Iran, but the shoot down of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 could be a game changer for how the rest of the world approaches its relations with the Islamic Republic’s oppressive government and the intelligence organs that control nearly every aspect of Iranian life.
Early on January 3, the world woke to the news that the United States had carried out a secret drone strike at Iraq’s Baghdad International airport that targeted two cars which had just arrived from war torn Syria. When the drones delivered their payload, the casualties included the pro-Iranian chief of Iraq’s Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the mastermind behind the Islamic Republic’s military and foreign policy in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
One of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s closest allies, Soleimani was regarded by his counterparts in the American military establishment as one of Iran’s most cunning strategists, a man who held unmatched sway over all of Tehran’s military and espionage activities in the Middle East.
Since taking over the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force – which is responsible for all military, intelligence, and asymmetrical warfare activities outside Iran – in 1997, Solemani has reshaped the balance of power in Middle East’s in Tehran’s favour, making the Islamic Republic a major power broker in countries where Iran is engaged in ongoing operations. In Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, Soleimani built a reputation as a feared military commander and superb combat tactician who also assassinated rivals and armed a network of fiercely loyal Shiite terrorist groups that killed hundreds of Americans in countries stretching from Afghanistan to the Eastern Mediterranean.
A division commander and decorated veteran of the brutal 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, Soleimani was known as a charismatic figure who was beloved by his Quds Force troops, he successfully oversaw the bolstering of Iran’s ties two of the world’s most=deadly terrorist organisations – Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which have been responsible for the killing and kidnapping thousands of American, Israeli, British, and European citizens since the 1980s.
His death drew praise from countries in the region such as Israel and Saud Arabia, and a mild endorsement from the UK, Germany, and France, but was widely condemned by countries who openly back the theocratic dictatorship of mullahs who have ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, or by those nations who were willing to do business with Iran and to help preserve the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that was designed to restrict Tehran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons.
On the commodities market, Brent crude futures topped $70 a barrel after the air strike killed Soleimani and escalated tensions in the Middle East, but those quickly cooled quickly after Iran and the US showed signs of a de-escalation and much of the world seemed content on maintaining a business-as-usual attitude towards Tehran, despite the Revolutionary Guards launching an utterly ineffective rocket attack on an American base in Iraq as part of their response to the killing of the Quds Force commander.
That all changed, however, with the downing of a Ukrainian airliner that killed 180 people. Though likely accidental, the shoot down of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 is watershed in the history of the Islamic Republic, which has spent the better part of four decades claiming that they are the victims of a Western-led international aggression that targets their very existence.
It remains to be seen whether the shoot down was deliberate. The most likely scenarios is that it was a tragic accident while Iran’s air defence batteries were all on high alert as they awaited an American response to the rocket attacks into Iraq. Coupled with the simple fact that the crews manning their Soviet-made TOR surface-to-air missile systems have almost no practical experience – their senior officers haven’t had any since the end of the Iran-Iraq War 32 years ago – certainly leaves open the possibility that the plane could have been mistaken by Iran’s very green strategic air defence radar crews.
The facts have only been compounded by Tehran’s insistence that its almost instantaneous assessment that a mechanical failure caused PS752 to come and their refusal to hand over the black boxes.Ali Abedzadeh, the head of Iran’s civil aviation authority, who instructed Iranian officials to issue a preliminary report that backs their initial conclusion on a mechanical error and who has refused to hand over any evidence to Boeing, the American company who manufactured the downed plane, is the same individual who rejected warnings by nearly every major Western airline in June 2019 to avoid flying in Iranian airspace after an American military drone was shot down.
At the time, Abedzadeh insisted that the Revolutionary Guard Corps would guarantee the safety of Iran’s skies, despite having their air defence batteries on high alert after the drone was downed.
The latest reports from Ukrainian investigators on the ground that the Revolutionary Guard has bulldozed the crash site, thus destroying crucial forensic evidence as video and satellite imagery emerges which shows that a surface-to-air missile most likely brought down PS752, furthers the argument that the Islamic Republic has no intention of cooperating with the international community, even with those nations who were willing to look beyond the Iranian regime’s support for terrorist groups and imperial projects that stretch from the Arabian Gulf to the Balkans and to the Chinese border.
The tragedy of PS752, and the loss of nearly 180 people, has put Iran squarely in the spotlight of the court of global opinion. And not unlike in September 1983, when the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 over Sakhalin Island after mistaking it for an American spy plane, the regime in Iran now finds itself at a point of no return. If it takes the Soviet path and continues to stymie all attempts to ascertain exactly what happened on January 8, 2020, they will most certainly be seen by much of the world as the pariah state that the US has framed it to be since the precursors of the Revolutionary Guards took 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days in 1979.