America’s assassination of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani was “like if Iran had killed Mike Pence in Mexico”, an “act of terrorism” that has left Iranians abroad afraid even to contact their families.
These are the words of Iranian nationals living in Britain, who this week told HuffPost UK about the shock they feel over events back home.
Soleimani was killed on Friday in a US-orchestrated drone strike. In the days that followed, Iran vowed “forceful revenge”. Trump then threatened to destroy 52 of the nation’s most historically and culturally significant sites.
Meanwhile, millions spilled onto the country’s streets in mourning and protest. Fifty people are reported to have died when a stampede broke out in Kerman at his funeral on Tuesday.
Iranian refugee Mohammad, 20, who arrived in the UK six years ago with his family, has struggled to come to terms with events.
“I was woken up at about half three in the morning by the news,” he said. “It was hard to believe what had happened at first.
“My father said the crowds mourning Soleimani were the biggest he had seen since the death of the Ayatollah [Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s first supreme leader],” said Mohammad. “The way in which he was killed has caused a lot of anger, and has destabilised so much.
“Just a month ago 1,500 Iranians were killed by the government during protests, and now some of the people involved in those protests are mourning Soleimani as a show of anger at what the US has done even though he was one of the biggest symbols of the establishment.”
He added: “It seems obvious that Trump did what he did to advance his own political agenda – it was completely disproportionate and it has done nothing to help the people of Iran.”
The attack near Baghdad airport in Iraq that killed Soleimani also claimed the life of Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – sparking calls from Iraqi MPs for their government to expel foreign troops from the country’s land, sea, and airspace.
“I see what Trump has done as an act of terrorism,” said one 22-year-old Iranian currently studying law at a university in the south of England, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s as though the Iranian people are just being used so he can stay in power.
“I would say the predominant feeling in Iran right now is one of anger. There has been unrest in the country for a long time, but this is the most anger I have ever seen.
“Iran is made out to be this country of terrorists, but as I see it terrorists can be westerners in suits, too. We can’t deny that Iran has big problems, but it feels like this has undone so much.”
Huge crowds, made up of tens-of-thousands of Iranians, gathered in the country’s streets over the weekend as the military general’s remains were transported during a major funeral procession.
When it comes to Soleimani himself, the student said attitudes towards the military leader among Iranians were often opposing.
She added: “For many Iranians, Soleimani was a very charismatic figure.
“He was seen as instrumental in the fight against ISIS and that earned him a lot of popularity. I can see that, but I can’t understand his support for Assad during the Syrian civil war – I can never see him as a black or white figure. He’s in the grey area for me.
“Over the weekend I saw pictures of people celebrating his death at the same time as people I know were changing their Facebook profile pictures to his portrait in his memory. It’s a very complicated situation.”
One thing, though, is clear for her.
“Trump had no reason to intervene in the way he did,” she said. “The US is always going to be the US and no one is going to question that, but it’s Iranians who will suffer because of what he has done.”
The Foreign Office has advised British nationals to avoid all but essential travel to Iran.
But for Iranian residents of the UK, the country is still home to their loved ones.
The Iranian Association, a London-based charity that has helped Iranian migrants settle in the UK for more than 30 years, said the situation had caused “a lot of anxiety” for Iranians here.
“People are very, very worried,” said a spokesperson. “Many people in the community have been watching the news closely because that’s all they can really do.
“Many of us have family still in Iran, but it can be difficult to communicate with them. A lot of people are afraid to speak via text or online messaging in case their messages are being watched, so it’s not easy to speak openly.
“Things have been unstable in Iran for a long time, but suddenly now it is even harder for people living in the UK to go back and see their families. All we can do is wait.”
Mehren Hosseini is a computer studies student at the University of Oxford. He moved from Iran three years ago.
He said: “Everyone I know in Iran is at least as worried as me. Some of them are looking to the future fearfully awaiting what it will bring to them.
“Some others are already planning on fleeing from Iran before it is too late. The current situation reminds me of a very interesting quote I saw on the internet: ‘If you don’t want immigrants, don’t create them.’
“Seeing the terrible conditions some of the immigrants are living in in the western countries, we must all do our best to avoid a war now, before it is too late.”