Qassem Suleimani Air Strike Escalates US Assassination Policy

The killing of the Iranian general signals an escalation in the U.S. policy of assassination and targeted killing, says Luca Trenta.

Qasem Soleimani pictured in 2018. (EPA/EPA-EFE/Iranian Supreme Leader’s Office)

By Luca Trenta
The Conversation

The U.S. government has killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the elite wing of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, in an air strike that took place in the early hours of Jan. 3.

This is the latest and most dramatic development in the ongoing proxy conflict between the U.S. and Iran. Much of that conflict has taken place on the territory of Iraq, including a recent attack on the U.S. embassy compound. The Trump administration explicitly blamed this recent attack on Iran. In turn, Iranian authorities, including Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Sharif, have accused the U.S. of committing an act of “international terrorism” in killing Suleimani in what was described as an “extremely dangerous and foolish escalation.”

While it is too soon to say what the consequences of this latest U.S. operation will be, the killing of the Iranian general certainly signals an escalation in the U.S. policy of assassination and targeted killing. It also establishes a dangerous precedent for international politics.

In a statement, the Department of Defense justified the drone strike by saying Suleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It emphasised that the Quds Force is designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government. It also stressed that the attack was justified to protect U.S. personnel abroad and to deter future attacks.

But Suleimani was also, clearly, a foreign official. It is also not evident that he posed an imminent threat to U.S. nationals. No details are given on this concern. These two points – the type of target killed and the nature of the threat – have traditionally been crucial elements in any decision by the U.S. government to undertake a targeted killing or pre-emptive strikes.

Justifying Attack: from Reagan to Obama

Since the mid-1970s, an executive order has prohibited U.S. government agencies from engaging in assassination. However, while upholding the ban on assassination, the Ronald Reagan administration worked to create the legal and political space it needed to kill terrorists when it saw fit. Legal opinions from the CIA and the Pentagon at the time suggested using force in counter-terrorism was a different matter altogether and so fell outside the remit of the ban on assassination.

A key element of the Reagan administration’s justification, as made clear in National Security Decision Directive 138, was that these measures were pre-emptive and were taken in self-defense, against targets that posed an imminent threat to U.S. interests and personnel.

In an important precedent for the Suleimani killing, some members of the Reagan administration also argued that not only terrorists, but also leaders of states supporting terrorism, could be targeted. On this basis, while some disagreement remains, several primary and secondary sources seem to agree that the Reagan administration tried to kill Libyan leader Muhammar Gaddafi in an air strike on his headquarters and home in 1986. Gaddafi survived the bombing. While members of the Reagan administration clumsily denied that Gaddafi was an explicit target, they also hoped, like the Trump administration today, that the strike would act as a deterrent.

Trump: a dangerous new precedent.

In the aftermath of 9/11, targeting terrorists and suspected terrorists became a staple of U.S. counter-terrorism policy. The number of drone strikes increased markedly during Barack Obama’s first term in particular.

In his second term, however, Obama made an admittedly late and somewhat unconvincing effort to better align U.S. counter-terrorism policy to international legal standards for the use of force in self-defense. This effort relied in part on the argument that the terrorists targeted posed an imminent threat to the U.S. In this effort, however, the Obama administration adopted a very relaxed standard of imminence. The legal justification has set international precedents that other states (like Turkey and Pakistan) have been more than happy to follow.

The drone strike that killed Suleimani, however, goes even beyond recent U.S. policy and seems to make explicit a view that had remained somewhat implicit in the Reagan years. U.S. practice had largely established that the ban on assassination did not apply to non-state terrorist actors who posed an imminent threat. Suleimani was in charge of the undeclared proxy war between the U.S. and Iran. This, however, was not a declared war, something that would make Suleimani a legitimate target (as in the General Yamamoto case during the second world war). While a military figure, he was clearly a foreign official and, thus, his assassination seems to fall within the remit of the ban, or at a minimum to explicitly challenge the prohibition.

Trump’s Policy

The justification published by the Department of Defense offers a detailed account of past actions by Suleimani, stating:

He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months – including the attack on December 27th – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Suleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

But there is no detailed evidence of why he posed an imminent threat. This might appear to be a minor point, but it’s central to the legal justification for the air strike. It all suggests that he was not killed because he posed an imminent threat, but more as a retaliation for recent events and for the deterrence of possible future attacks.

Indeed, Agnes Callamard, UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, has already suggested that the U.S. may have acted illegally in this case.

The Trump administration has, so far, refused to explain and justify its policy of targeted killing, but this latest operation further undermines international and U.S. domestic norms against assassination is certain to set more dangerous international precedents for targeted killings.The Conversation

Luca Trenta is senior lecturer in international relations at Swansea University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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12 comments for “Qassem Suleimani Air Strike Escalates US Assassination Policy

  1. January 6, 2020 at 12:00

    It was:
    “Blatant Murder”

    When blatant murder is celebrated by some world leaders
    Then we know there is “law and order” by gangsters
    Yet, those committing these monstrous heinous crimes
    Are in positions of power, is this a sign of depraved times?

    Will this crime now lead to more maniacal murders?
    Will many innocents now be victims, and butchered?
    Will this violent killing result in another hellish war?
    Could there be a nuclear holocaust to finally settle the score?

    Are some countries in the hands of those that are insane?
    When murder is committed, and the victims are blamed
    Yet, some of these “leaders,” speak of, “the rule of law”
    And praise the killings that they planned and oversaw

    Now the perpetrators threaten more and more bombing and killing
    Can anybody stop these war criminals that in luxury are hiding?
    They order others, to do their murderous and criminal assassinations
    While bringing war and destruction to many unfortunate nations

    If they have no respect for any country’s sovereignty and its people
    Then they are devoid of ethics, morals, and any decent principles
    Yet, many of these “leaders” are getting away with their unlawful behaviour
    And illegal wars, and killing millions, has culminated in a blatant murder…

  2. Jeff Harrison
    January 5, 2020 at 20:59

    But, but some legal office in the White House has declared that the US targeting a foreign official who was not directly involved in attacking the US was “legal” at least under US if not international law. And what do we care about international law, anyway?

  3. Jpc
    January 5, 2020 at 16:23

    I am totally at a loss to divine how this assassination was supposed to be beneficial to US interests.

  4. January 5, 2020 at 08:30

    It gives the shudder to realize that anybody on earth can be remotely singled out and assassinated from the sky.

  5. Guy
    January 4, 2020 at 13:46

    The statement by the dept.of defense being carefully scripted ,of course with no evidence whatsoever , not say anything about the fact that had General Qassem Suleimani wanted to do a hit on US personnel ,he could / would have done so long ago .
    The document is fraudulent and insulting to the public at large unless one is brain dead .

  6. rosemerry
    January 4, 2020 at 13:29

    The presence of US forces since the invasion and occupation in 2003 cannot be considered legal unless the Iraqi government invited them. Now that this action has obviously broken any agreement, the Iraqis need to get rid of all of them. To claim the Iranians are a danger to the USA is to assume the US can be in Iraq,Syria, or anywhere (uninvited and often acting against the elected government eg Syria) . To then say that the general was “planning to destroy American” is even more bizarre. Where do we draw the line? Certainly nowhere relating to “defense” of the USA.
    Pepe’s comment on Israel being the only beneficiary is pertinent here.

    • Jpc
      January 5, 2020 at 17:07

      I am totally at a loss to divine how this assassination was supposed to be beneficial to US interests.

  7. AnneR
    January 4, 2020 at 11:02

    Of course, that government, corporate-capitalist-imperialist mouthpiece, NPR, is spewing, via various “sources” (that egregious body the Atlantic Council, specifically chosen Iraqis , likely Sunni), the usual Orwellian propaganda by avoiding inconvenient truths and repeating tawdry lies, as an interview with some female pundit made plain. She was not questioned about her misdirections – accusing General Soleimani as *the* actor responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqis while totally ignoring WHO the real killer of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis has been: the USA. Us.

    With economic sanctions (siege warfare) in the 1990s which killed about half a million Iraqi children – a price that cackling witch’s friend Albright (and doubtless the witch too) considered well worth paying – well, not *their* children in danger of death was it?

    With our “shock and awe” illegal, lied into invasion which slaughtered many thousands, destroyed water, electricity facilities, farmland, homes, livelihoods. Then, more recently, the US bombing campaign of Raqqa which killed many more thousands.

    Who then are the terrorists?

    Along with so many on this subject, NPR and the BBC call Iran’s ALLIES across the MENA countries “proxies.” Deliberately, of course, to both create and reinforce the idea among the listeners that such allies are illegitimate, are really “proxies.”

    Of course, for the FUKUSI governments, corporate-capitalist-imperialist and ethnic cleansers, *allies* are what “we” in the exceptionalist, pure as driven snow, righteous western imperialist powers have. Nations on *our* current, ongoing, “black list” *do not* have Allies, only proxies because their governments (always called regimes to further insist on the illegitimacy of these governments and their relations with others) are – we have determined and “righteously so” of course – illegitimate, undemocratic (which automatically makes them “illegitimate,” unless, that is they will hand over their resources to our corporate-capitalists, bend their knees to our commands, and happily slaughter their oppositional populations).

    Yes, Hizbullah, the Houthis, and Kataib Hezbollah and so on are aided and supported by Iran, whether with money, weaponry know-how or simply moral support. But how is this illegitimate?

    Western governments fund heavily, sell enormous quantities of arms to and our intelligence agencies co-operate with our proxies (oh, sorry, “Allies”) on Russia’s borders, in the MENA countries, in Africa and so on. AND we and our “allies” most certainly have trained and do train our really existing proxies (as in the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan in the 1970s; as in the jihadis in Iraq and Syria now)…

    The difference between our really existing proxies and Iran’s genuine allies is a very real one: our proxies are used *against* the governments and peoples of the MENA countries, or, as in the case of Afghanistan against the USSR to help destroy communism (both in Afghanistan and in the USSR); meanwhile, Iran’s allies work within their own countries to protect their own peoples against outside interference, invasion, destruction usually by the FUKUSI nations.

    In my book, what we do is completely illegitimate if not illegal, what we accuse Iran of doing; and what Iran does is what we say we do.

    • Gerard
      January 6, 2020 at 18:23

      Well said, Anne.

  8. Kozmo
    January 4, 2020 at 00:19

    Once you’ve illegally invaded and broken a whole nation (Iraq) with impunity, why stop at a single man? Expect more murders to come. Ho Chi Minh must be thankful he’s already dead!

  9. Exiled in Ard Mhaca
    January 3, 2020 at 17:18

    Kill first ask questions later. Start a war to distract from problems at home. Watch the price of oil go through the roof.

  10. Moi
    January 3, 2020 at 16:32

    The West’s claim to “moral authority” is now indefensible.

    Likewise ridicule will be heaped upon MSM users of “the rules-based international order.”

    The MSM has no option but to turn against Trump before he destroys all their beloved propaganda catchphrases.

Comments are closed.