File photo: Major General Qasim Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force, which carried out extra-territorial covert operations for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Photograph:( AFP )
The Ukraine plane crash exposed the possible cracks within the top Iranian military leadership.
Two days after the US assassinated top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, a red flag was raised over the dome of the Jamkaran Mosque in the holy city of Qom in Iran.
It was a rare sight for the flag which symbolises revenge to be unfurled outside the month of Muharram. The flag’s video was widely shared on social media with many saying that it signified an impending battle.
War had become too real. The killing united Iran which had been reeling under anti-government protests over the fuel price hike. Slogans against the establishment were replaced by those against America.
In the US, Congress condemned President Trump’s decision to order the strike without its approval. It later voted to limit Trump's power to declare war on Iran.
Many questioned the timing of the killing which happened in an election year. President Trump had his own battles to fight. He has recently been impeached and is awaiting trial in the Senate. Countries around the world including Washington's allies called for de-escalation.
Then came January 8.
Less than a week after Soleimani’s killing, Iran launched a series of rockets at two Iraqi bases hosting US troops. There were no casualties in the attacks but in a separate incident, 176 innocent people lost their lives.
Hours after the strikes, a Ukrainian passenger plane crashed near Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. All 176 on board were killed.
Majority of the victims were Iranians while others included citizens of Canada, Ukraine and Sweden. Almost immediately after the accident, US and Canada said that they had intelligence that a missile shot down the Boeing 737 jet.
Iran denied the claims but it also refused to hand out the plane’s black box to Boeing. Three days after the crash, Iran admitted that it had unintentionally shot down the plane mistaking it for a ‘hostile jet’. The country vowed to bring the guilty to justice.
Internationally, Iran signalled that it favoured the diffusion of tensions. Speaking at the ‘Raisina Dialogue’ in the Indian capital of New Delhi, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that there was still room for diplomacy with the United States.
Amid heightened tensions, the crash exposed the possible cracks within the top Iranian military leadership. The missile was launched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps- a paramilitary which has its own army, air force and navy which are independent of the Iranian military.
Soleimani was the head of the ‘Quds Force’ or the foreign unit of the IRGC. Iran said that it was in a state of ‘high-readiness’ over fears of US retaliation. If missiles had to be deployed then why was Iranian airspace not closed?
Was there a lack of communication between the military, IRCG and the government? While these questions remain unanswered, an old challenged threatened the Iranian regime. Protesters took to the streets of capital Tehran chanting slogans against their leaders and calling them liars for initially denying the downing of the Ukrainian jet.
The demonstrators found support from Trump who in an unusual move, tweeted in Persian asking the Iranian government ‘to not massacre peaceful protesters.’
The Iranian leadership has a lot to worry about. It is not just an election year for the US but Iran too. In fact, the country is heading to polls next month. But as of now, a major war has been averted.
(Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)