Iran has gone through significant political developments since the outset of the November 2019 protests, among which the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani by the US special forces is of particular importance.
In retaliations to Soleimani’s murder, Iran, in a very calculated attack, launched several missiles at two Iraq airbases hosting U.S. and coalition troops. Just a few hours after attacking the US bases in Iraq, 176 people on board a flight to the Ukrainian capital Kiev were killed when the plane crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran’s international airport. Initially, Iran blamed the dramatic crash on technical problems; however, three days later and after all the evidence proved otherwise, Iran reluctantly admitted that it unintentionally shot down the Ukrainian jet. As riots started over the downed jet in several major cities, angry Iranian protesters tore down Qasem Soleimani posters and chanted radical anti-government slogans some calling for the resignation of Khamenei and others pushing for regime change. Similar to the November 2019 protests, this new wave of unrest was violently suppressed by the Iranian security forces.
In reactions to these dramatic developments, many questions have been raised. In order to shed some lights into many ambiguities surrounding these incidents, in what follows I will raise some of these questions and echo and reflect on some hypothetical answers being circulated in the Iranian community on the net.
Q1: Why Soleimani was murdered? Was there a conspiracy?
Since the United States has publicly taken the responsibility of killing Soleimani, the main question is how the US was informed about his exact travel information to Iraq.
- Hypothesis #1: The United States is equipped with advanced, sophisticated intelligence and surveillance systems enabling them to continuously track and monitor the movements of important military and political figures of interest. Furthermore, allies like Israel might have helped them too.
- Hypothesis #2: It was an inside job – i.e., the Iranian regime or some factions within the state were involved. But, the question is why? Below are some hypothetical answers:
- Due to paralyzing economic situation in Iran as a result of US economic sanctions and political pressures, Iran has been trying to appease Trump’s administration to ease some of these difficulties by revising its regional policies and strategies particularly with respect to its proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Considering Suleiman’s power, radicalism, and popularity as the commander of the “mighty” Quds force, “a unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) directed to carry out unconventional warfare and intelligence activities and responsible for extraterritorial operations,” he might have been perceived as an impediment to such a radical change in Iran’s policy; hence, eliminated.
- He was sacrificed to unite different factions within the regime and heal the ever-growing gap between the regime and its social base by invoking peoples’ nationalist sentiments. The November 2019 uprising of the vast majority of the lower classes across Iran (traditionally, the social base of the regime) and its radical nature, triggered by sudden hike in the price of gas, surprised and alarmed the leaders of the Islamic Republic. In these protests, which according to some accounts resulted in almost 1500 death and 7000 arrests, the poor and frustrated masses questioned the legitimacy of the regime in its entirety and called for its downfall – the first of such events since the inception of the Islamic Republic. Then, in a dramatic change of events, Soleimani, seen by many as the savior of the Iranian soil and people from the ISIS advances was assassinated. The fact that millions of people took part in Soleimani’s memorial processions as well as how the masses’ anger was suddenly shifted from the regime’s atrocities to the United States’ assassination of Soleimani was seen by many observers as a medicine to the regime’s accelerating erosion of legitimacy and soft power.
Q2: Why didn’t the United States retaliate against Iran’s missile strikes against the U.S. bases in Iraq?
- Hypothesis #1: Iran had no choice but to somehow retaliate against Solemani’s murder in a proportionate way – tolerable by Trump – to save face both domestically and regionally. Therefore, it’s highly likely that appropriate coordination between the two adversaries had taken place by third parties to gain the “U.S. approval” for such an attack as long it would not result in the death of any American military personnel in the targeted bases. This would have satisfied both the Iranian regime and Trump who’s more inclined to make deals than start a new full scale war in the Middle East.
- Hypothesis #2: No advance coordination had taken place with the exception of indirectly notifying the U.S. of such an upcoming attack to give them enough time to make necessary precautions to prevent any American casualties.
Q3: Why did Iran fired missiles at the Ukrainian plane?
- Hypothesis #1: As stated by Iran officials, this was a “mistake”. Iran had no intention of creating such a catastrophe since it would have ruined its celebration of successfully attacking the U.S. bases in Iraq. Solemiani’s memorial processions, attended by millions of Iranians, coupled with such an unprecedented direct military action against the mighty US army was definitely a major political boost for a regime in CCU. However, downing a passenger plane intentionally, would have been the last thing they wanted.
- Hypothesis #2: Iran regime’s external or internal oppositions/enemies or even perhaps a faction within the regime might have purposefully downed the plane to overshadow what I’ve already mentioned in the above and plunge the regime once more into a deep crisis. The radicalized anti-regime protests and the international outcry following the admission of the IRGC in mistakenly firing missiles at the plane did definitely ruin the mullahs’ “celebration” and unwoven whatever aegis they had knitted from Soleimani’s death.
Q4: Why didn’t the Iranian government shutdown Iran’s airspace in light of the possibility of U.S. military retaliations, particularly in Tehran.
- Hypothesis #1: while the downing of the plane by IRGC might have been by mistake, but allowing planes taking off and landing from the airports across Iran was intentional. In fact, there is a high possibility that Iran kept its airspace open to fend off any possible US attacks thinking that they would not fire missiles or bomb Tehran for moral reasons. In other words, they were under the impression that the U.S. military would not take any aerial retaliatory actions against Iran knowing that it could result in a horrible human tragedy with high casualties.
- Hypothesis #2: either the government or radical factions within the regime allowed the normal operation of airports in an anticipation of such a human catastrophe to play the blame game and gain more sympathy and support for the regime both at home and abroad.
Q5: In light of the current circumstances, what’s the possibility of the overthrow of the regime in the near future?
Those familiar with the history of Iran know very well that even if the conditions are fully ripe, it usually takes a while to overthrow a regime, as in the case of the 1905 Iranian Constitutional Revolution and the 1979 revolution. While the unprecedented protests of November 2019 was indeed a turning point in the radicalization of the ever-growing antagonism between the regime and the oppressed masses and, while the recent plane crash has significant political implications for the survival of the regime in Tehran, the current condition and configuration of opposing forces would not suggest that Iran is on the verge of another revolution and regime change. This does not mean that we should to rule out the possibility of another revolution in Iran in the future; but rather, it is meant to say that it’s kind of premature to think that the mullahs are ready to give up power and the forces of revolution have a viable alternative and are fully ready, organizationally and politically, to overthrow them. Back in 1977-78, even when the U.S. had given up on the shah, the regime was in deep crisis, and the shah himself was confused and lacked the will, energy, and courage to stay in power, it took a long time to “negotiate” the overthrow of his regime. The situation right now is not only more unfavorable to a revolutionary change, but also the mullahs’ regime in not the kind of a regime to “negotiate” its downfall with their internal/external adversaries – there are too much at stake. This question, however, requires a space of its own to fully explore and analyze . –Khashayar