On January 3, 2020, the U.S. government assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by a drone strike in Baghdad, Iraq. On January 8, Iran retaliated by firing missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq. Later, an Iranian missile unintentionally brought down Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752, killing the 176 passengers and crew members on board. These incidents have garnered extensive media attention, sparked international involvement, and raised discussions concerning war.
Dr. V. Firat Bozcali, an assistant professor of anthropology at UTM, teaches ANT209: War, Trade and Aid: The Anthropology of Global Intervention. His research focuses on political economy and state formation, specifically in Turkey, Iraq, and the Middle East and his fieldwork has allowed him to observe first-hand the experiences of individuals living in high-conflict areas such as the Turkish-Iranian border. The Medium sat down with Bozcali to discuss the current political climate.
As to why this specific assassination received so much attention as compared to a series of ongoing assassinations carried out by the U.S., including the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, Bozcali cites Soleimani’s far-reaching influence and impact. Soleimani was the leader of the Quds force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). Although the IRGC is an official state institution, the U.S. continues to view it as a terrorist group, and therefore, Soleimani was regarded as a terrorist by the States. This view was controversial since many Iranians and people across the Middle East considered Soleimani a national hero who had served his country well for decades. As Bozcali explains, Soleimani’s specific agenda entailed containing, stopping, and deterring “Iran’s regional competitors and global adversities by organizing various militia groups and network partners across the region.” Furthermore, Soleimani was “essential to Iran’s perception of how [the Iranians] uphold and ensure their security.” Beyond Iran, Soleimani played a large role in power structures in Iraq and across the Middle East. Therefore, his death destabilized several power balances across numerous regions.
Because the drone strike was targeted towards a leader of a state’s military, the assassination may also be considered a war crime. If it is dealt with as a war crime, international courts will be involved, and the impact can extend beyond Iran and the U.S.
With regards to Flight PS752, the incident is still undergoing investigation. The Iranian authorities initially rejected accusations of their involvement. However, they later admitted that their own missiles had unintentionally struck the plane. Bozcali says that “it’s really hard to believe the lack of coordination between Iranian state institutions, the military, and civilian institutions.” Moreover, assuming that the missiles were unintentional, the extreme negligence of Iranian authorities is troublesome and “authorities need to face responsibility.” Regarding the aftermath of this tragedy, Bozcali believes that there will now be “increased risk perception of the Iranian nuclear program [and] Iranian authorities will probably face more international pressure towards their nuclear program because of this negligence.”
The plane crash involves other nations as well. Since the plane was Ukrainian, Ukraine will need to play a large role in investigations. The passengers of the plane were of different nationalities, and those nations will also be seeking justice for their citizens. Given Canada’s history of peacekeeping, Bozcali states that Canada can constructively handle the situation by maintaining a peace agenda and focusing on de-escalation, while demanding justice for the 57 Canadians who were killed in the crash.
Because of the heightened political tensions and international involvement, the situation has led to conversations about a possible third world war, especially on social media where citizens of developed countries are sharing viral videos and memes about World War 3. According to Bozcali, the likelihood of these events triggering a third world war are minimal. However, regional conflicts will continue. “With expectations of a world war, we normalize these seemingly small-scale sufferings, which are not actually small-scale, and in that way, [we] justify these small-scale conflicts.”
Rather than panicking about a third world war or waiting for the situation to worsen, Bozcali urges people to refocus their attention to existing issues such as the countless human rights violations which occur during these types of conflicts. “We should find a way to feel more responsible or engage with rights violations in different parts of the world, without necessarily waiting for the violations to lead to wider regional or global conflicts,” he says. For example, in November 2019, tensions surrounding oil prices in Iran led to protests from Iranian citizens and violent government intervention. Although the incident resulted in numerous injuries and deaths, it received minimal media attention and very little international intervention. Many similar issues and human rights violations continue globally which Bozcali asks us to consider and act upon.
Bozcali states that it is important to include anthropologists in discussions of war and politics as anthropology examines the lived experiences of individuals through fieldwork and participant observations. During situations of conflict, the actual suffering of those impacted by the conflict is often left out of the conversation. Anthropologists can help bring people’s voices into the wider discourse. Additionally, since most of the existing research on conflict-rich regions come from state-funded research, the potential for bias is very high. Anthropologists can help minimize bias and provide valuable insights into conflict.
The assassination of General Soleimani is just one component of the ongoing tensions between Iran and the U.S. Within a few weeks, the assassination has already led to the deaths of hundreds of people during protests, military action, and the Flight PS752 crash. As more international parties become involved in this situation, de-escalation should be prioritized in order to protect the rights and lives of civilians.