Will There Be A World War 3? The Iran-US Conflict: Explained


Asaka Park, Co Managing Editor

On January 2nd, an American drone aimed missiles at the leaders of the Iranian military. One of them was Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s foreign legion. Soleimani was a powerful figure and his death angered many Iranians. In a matter of days, the standoff between the United States and Iran quickly devolved into talks about war.

People across the globe are feeling afraid for their futures. It is more important than ever to equip people with information. Here are some of the things you need to know:


Myth: The conflict was sudden. The United States has embroiled itself in the affairs of countless Middle Eastern nations. Chances are, you’re familiar with ISIS’s influence upon Iraq and Syria, and Palestine and Israel’s ongoing conflict. Chances are, you’re not as acquainted with the United States and Iran’s conflict. Without a doubt, many are wondering: How did it come to this?

Fact: It’s been a long time coming. The relationship between the United States and Iran first took a sour turn when civilians overthrew Iran’s monarchy in 1979, shifting to an Islamic theocracy and enabling the resurgence of conservative social values. There wasn’t an immediate confrontation, but Iran’s new climate definitely raised some red flags for many Americans. In 1984, the CIA reported more than 60 Iran-backed incidents of terrorism. Consequently, the United States imposed sanctions — or targeted embargoes — on Iran in an attempt to put a brake to its technological advances, particularly its development of nuclear weapons. Tensions reached new heights in 1988 when the United States Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger plane, mistaking it for a fighter jet. In the ensuing years, the United States doubled down on its sanctions against Iran.

In 2015, the United States and several other countries enacted a pact, the Iran Nuclear Deal, which called for Iran to cease its production of nuclear weapons. In exchange, the United States lifted its sanctions. Of course, the deal wasn’t without controversy. Then-President Obama had entered this deal through an executive agreement, as opposed to a congressional ratification, which raised questions of legality. Besides, many Republicans contended, the pact was impracticable. Naturally, when Trump was elected in 2015, he vowed to topple Obama’s efforts. 

In May 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from the deal and reimposed sanctions. Since then, Iranian groups have attacked Americans several times, including an incident where a drone was shot down. In response, Trump’s aides have come up with options, including killing Soleimani. Trump responded by saying that Soleimani will be killed if another American is killed. However, the Trump administration’s official reason for killing Soleimani is that Soleimani had been sending a threat. As of now, the nature of Soleimani’s threat has not been disclosed. 


Myth: President Trump’s killing of Soleimani was 100% illegal. People have strong opinions on whether the killing was justified or not. Many argue that the killing was a necessary act of self-defense, as he had been plotting against the United States. Others argue that the killing was counterproductive: it would open doors to retaliation. And some hypothesize that Trump killed Soleimani to divert attention from his impeachment. But what does American law say about the killing of Soleimani?

Fact: It’s complicated. The killing of Soleimani has been characterized as an “assassination” — an illegal, politically motivated murder — by Iranian leaders as well as many media outlets. On the other hand, the Trump administration is adamant that this was a “targeted killing” and “lethal action,” which are not illegal. Nevertheless, the law is ambiguous when it comes to what constitutes an assassination. In “Killing” Or “Assassination”?, NPR’s Elizabeth Jensen analyzes the semantics of killing. She concludes, “‘Targeted killing’ is just as accurate a description, without pulling punches. But if the administration does not offer more details to back up its claim that Soleimani’s killing was meant to deter imminent lethal attacks on U.S. citizens (which would make the legal self-defense argument more potent), then the word ‘assassination’ seems justified.”


Myth: We are on the brink of World War III. By the afternoon of January 3rd, the Internet was stunned by a cacophony of TikToks and Tweets stamped with #WorldWarIIIMemes and screenshots of We Lived Happily During the War. But for all practical purposes, is World War III an imminent concern?

Fact: A full-fledged war isn’t as likely as you think. According to political analysts Michael C. Horowitz and Elizabeth N. Saunders, an armed conflict, let alone World War III, is unlikely. In the Washington Post article “War with Iran is still less likely than you think”, Horowitz and Saunders  note that “war with Iran is unpopular in the United States and is unlikely to help Trump win reelection. And Trump has long said he doesn’t want a Middle East war.” They argue that the United States is far more powerful than Iran, making the war a fruitless endeavor for the Iranians. The Iranian administration also seems cognizant of the costs of war: “Similarly, despite short-term domestic pressures to retaliate, Iran’s leaders want to stay in power and do not want to risk their regime in a costly war — and war between the United States and Iran would probably be very costly.”

But the conflict is far from benign. For both countries, there are innocent lives at stake,. In the Vox article “The case against killing Qassem Soleimani”, Dina Esfandry, an Iran expert at the Century Foundation, speculates that Iran is plotting revenge following Soleimani’s death: “I suspect that what they’re now doing is putting their heads together to figure out the best way to do that without risking an all-out conventional war against the US, which they would lose.” And the concern for national security is far-reaching. In another Vox article, “The case for killing Qassem Soleimani”, former Pentagon official Bilal Saab maintains that some violence is inevitable, although killing Soleimani would dampen the Iranian fire in some capacity. “I am of the opinion that we were not going to be able to deter the Iranians from engaging violently against us across the board. What we’re trying to deter here is really the more egregious acts, the more provocative acts by the Iranians against us and our partners,” he says. In other words, we must be vigilant. It is entirely possible that Iranian groups are planning to attack American civilians. 

Of course, Iranian civilians are also affected. In the Teen Vogue op-ed, “Donald Trump’s Order to Kill Iranian Leader Qasem Soleimani Feels Like World War 3, but We Must Say No to War With Iran”, politics editor Lucy Diavolo makes the point that history repeats itself: “If a U.S. invasion of Iran was as deadly and prolonged as those in Iraq or Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands could die, many of them civilians.” The Iraq invasion was an eight-year-long takeover, justified by the premise that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was rubbing elbows with terrorists and preparing weapons of mass destruction, which later turned out to be untrue. 


Myth: In the case of a war, you will be drafted. For many boys who signed up for the Selective Service when they received their driver’s license or registered for federal student aid, the fear of being drafted looms like a dark cloud. Some boys have reported receiving text messages allegedly from the military, threatening them with a fine if they don’t show up to the nearest recruiting station. News outlets have reported that so many people have been visiting the website of the Selective Service System that it has crashed. What does the Selective Service System have to say?

Facts: The chance of being drafted is slim. The Selective Service merely serves as a database to keep a list of men who could be drafted. In order for the draft to be enacted, it must be ratified by Congress, repealing the current volunteer-only system. Of course, in order for Congress to approve a hypothetical draft, there must be widespread support across the political spectrum.

And no, you will NOT be drafted via text. 


These world events can be scary and anxiety-inducing. Try to be proactive. Always remember to fact-check what you see on social media, and to read from multiple news outlets to keep your perspective balanced. And when the time comes for you to vote, make sure to research what solutions each candidate has to offer.