The killing of Iran’s top general in an American air strike has sparked a dramatic rise in already-simmering tensions between Washington and Tehran.
General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed in the missile strike near Baghdad’s airport in the early hours of Friday morning.
In his first statement responding to the strike, Donald Trump stoked tensions yet further, tweeting: “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!”
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the strike. He later added: “All friends—& enemies—know that Jihad of Resistance will continue with more motivation & definite victory awaits the fighters on this blessed path.”
Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2020
World War 3 trends
Britons waking up on Friday morning were met with an array of apocalyptic trending terms on social media platform Twitter.
The term “World War III” had been used more than 201,000 times by 1pm. At one point, the term “Franz Ferdinand” was also trending.
On Google, there was a significant spike in the number of people in the UK searching “World War 3”. The chart below, covering the past seven days, shows the increase matches the reporting of the timing of the air strike.
The chart below shows searches for “World War 3” over the past 12 months, which have remained relatively stable until the events of the past 24 hours.
As a comparison, the search has spiked significantly above searches for either Boris Johnson or Meghan Markle, though it remains below searches for Iran - which have also dramatically increased today.
How bad is it?
The response from some senior politicians in the UK has been to urge greater caution amid warnings the developments are pushing the situation to “the brink of a disastrous war”.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab issued a statement saying the government had “always recognised the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force” led by the general.
“Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests,” Mr Raab added.
However, Labour MPs have warned that the killing of Soleimani could escalate.
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said she has “warned that the Trump administration was wilfully angling for a catastrophic conflict with Iran”, describing Trump’s actions as “reckless, unlawful and provocative”.
Angela Rayner, a deputy leadership candidate, said: “I sincerely hope that there is not a war between Iran and the USA. We should work to try and avoid that at all costs.”
Top leadership hopeful Rebecca Long-Bailey said: “With this assassination, President Trump is pushing us to the brink of another disastrous war that would cost countless lives, further destabilise the region and make us all less safe.”
High-profile Labour MP Lisa Nandy said: “The last thing we need is another all out war.”
What do the experts say?
Several experts have warned of retaliations from Iran following the US strike - although none have gone so far as to suggest a conflict could break out that would engulf numerous other nations such as the UK.
Ian Bond, foreign policy director at the Centre for European Reform, said on Twitter the air strike was a “big escalation” by Mr Trump, describing the US president’s actions as “very different” from the killing of non-state terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden.
No doubt #Soleimani was v bad actor, w much blood on his hands. But killing non-state terrorists eg bin Laden or Baghdadi v different from killing senior official of internationally-recognised state. Big escalation by Trump, & a lawless step that increases risk to US & allies.
— Ian Bond (@CER_IanBond) January 3, 2020
Dr Jack Watling, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said Iran was not likely to want to provoke a war with the US.
“The significance of this strike is that it is a declared assassination of a senior officer in another state with whom the US is not in a declared armed conflict and conducted on the territory of a third party,” he said.
“That’s a very significant development in and of itself.
“Ultimately Iran does not want to provoke a full-scale conflict.
“I would expect there will be attacks on US forces, but they will be conducted with care.”
RUSI research fellow Michael Stephens warned the situation could grow into a wider regional conflict.
He added: “The US strikes in Iraq are a game changing event that will have severe repercussions for regional security.
“Iran will look to strike back at US interests across the region, as well as disrupt the activities of its allies.
“However, without a leader of the capability and influence of Soleimani they will be weakened and less effective.
“But make no mistake this is a highly dangerous moment, and could escalate into a wider regional conflict enveloping neighbouring states as it increases in scope and scale.”
According to US news website Axios, a source in close contact with Trump administration senior national security officials said a cyberattack was the most likely means of retaliatory action.
Read more from Yahoo News UK
Leading defence journalist Chris Hughes warned in the Mirror that “American forces will be on a war-footing and we are already seeing a huge escalation in Washington's military presence in the Middle East.”
The BBC’s defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus also warned: “Retaliation is to be expected. A chain of action and reprisal could ensue bringing the two countries closer to a direct confrontation.”