On January 3rd, General Qasem Soleimani – whom many saw as Iran’s second most powerful man – was taken out by a U.S. airstrike while driving to the Baghdad international airport. According to a statement from the Pentagon the decisive action was taken at the direction of President Donald Trump in order to protect U.S. personnel abroad. “General Soleimani was,” According to their intelligence, “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members throughout the region.” The event received mixed reactions, from people praising President Trump’s action to others calling it a public assassination. Others went as far as saying that this would lead to World War III. The action itself was not unwarranted. It was the re-establishment of deterrence after months of growing Iranian hostility in the region.
As commander of the Quds Force – a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that specializes in unconventional warfare and military intelligence – General Soleimani is being held responsible for the deaths of more than 600 American soldiers and the creation of militias all over the Middle East. This particular branch of the IRGC has been deemed a terrorist organization by the United States on multiple occasions since 2007. The militias that Soleimani armed and organized helped President Assad keep power in Syria. They are also currently fighting the proxy war between Iran and Saudi-Arabia in Yemen. These armed rebels have helped to destabilize the entire region.
The killing of Soleimani happened after months of increasing tensions between Iran and the rest of the world. Amidst a crumbling economy and heavy sanctions, Iran had resorted to sabotaging and attacking foreign oil tankers and shooting down an U.S. drone in the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranian government stated that if they cannot export their oil than neither can anyone else. Iran is also either directly or indirectly – through the use of their proxies – responsible for the attack on two Saudi oil facilities in September 2019. In December, Kata’ib Hezbollah, a terrorist organization sponsored by Iran, attacked an Iraqi military base. This attack killed an American contractor and wounded many U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. The United States retaliated with tactical airstrikes, killing at least 25 fighters with ties to Kata’ib Hezbollah. More recently a pro-Iranian paramilitary group in Iraq attacked the United States embassy in Baghdad. According to a spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, the militants did not breach the embassy itself, but were able to access the reception and the larger compound which surrounds the area. All of these events can be tied back to General Soleimani.
The goal of the Trump administration is to re-establish deterrence against the Islamic Republic of Iran. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo explained that, “In strategic terms deterrence simply means persuading the other party that the cost of specific behavior exceeds its benefits. It requires credibility – your adversary must understand that not only do you have the capacity to impose these costs, but that you’re in fact willing to do so.” The United States had lost this credibility during the Obama presidency. President Barack Obama drew a red line in Syria over the use of chemical weapons by President Assad against civilians, but then failed to act on this ultimatum when chemical weapons were used again. This showed the world dangerous indecision and lack of resolve on behalf of the United States. It emboldened Iran to effectively bribe the United States government into sending them $400 million in cash in exchange for the release of four U.S. prisoners. The Obama era nuclear deal with Iran – the JCPOA – had two effects. First, it temporarily delayed Iran from having nuclear weapons. Second, the loosening of sanctions opened up revenue streams which were used by the Iranian government to build up their militia networks.
Secretary of State Pompeo describes the goal of the Trump administration as follows: They want to deprive the Iranian regime of the resources it needs to perpetrate its nefarious activities around the world. After having warned the Iranian government that an attack that takes an American life would have ramifications, the Trump administration followed through with its threat. President Trump gave the authorization to go after Iran’s top general after an American contractor was killed and the embassy had been attacked. According to U.S. intelligence there was an imminent threat to United States diplomatic and military personnel in the region.
In Iran thousands of people took to the streets to mourn General Soleimani. The demonstrations were a show of support for the Iranian government. However, according to some sources there were also anti-government protests celebrating Soleimani’s death happening at the same time. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led the funeral of Soleimani at the university in Tehran. Both of Iran’s leaders, Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani, vowed to take revenge. Iran’s retaliation would come a few days later in the form of a ballistic missile attack on military bases housing U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The attack only resulted in minimal physical damage to the military bases. There were no American or Iraqi fatalities. However, hours after launching this attack, Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane. All 176 passengers aboard were killed. At first Iran denied that it was an Iranian missile that had taken down the airplane. It was not until on January 11th President Rouhani admitted that Iran had unintentionally shot down the plane, blaming “human error” for the tragedy.
The international reaction following the death of General Soleimani was one of cautious support. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke out in favor of the decisive action, saying: “President Trump deserves all the credit for acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively… Israel stand with the United States in its righteous struggle for peace, security and self-defense.” European allies of the United States gave their qualified support for the airstrike, but also urged restraint from both countries as to avoid a larger conflict. The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to expel U.S. troops from the country. Although this declaration is non-binding – no quorum was present – and heavily pushed by pro-Iranian political fractions, it might lead to increased friction between the United States and Iraq.
Many media sources have debated the question whether the airstrike on Qasem Soleimani amounts to an assassination of a foreign official in violation with American law. Theoretically speaking, there are two laws that could be considered applicable to the situation. First, whether the United States was authorized to take action inside the country. The answer to this is yes, the President of the United States has had the authority to use military force inside of Iraq ever since Congress gave him that power in 2002. If the action had taken place in for example Iran itself, the president would have needed to get permission from the United States Congress. Second, whether the killing of Soleimani was in violation of the Reagan administration executive order against assassinations (EO 12333). If for argument’s sake one looks over the fact that General Soleimani was a U.S.-designated terrorist as to make this law applicable, then under this law there are three situations in which the President of the U.S. has the authority to take out a foreign official. If the airstrike took place during an international conflict and he was targeted as leader of the Quds force, it would be considered lawful. This is also the case if the strike occurred during a non-international armed conflict, while targeting the general as leader or advisor to a militia. Finally, if the United States acted in self-defense to prevent imminent attacks organized by Soleimani, it would also be considered lawful. Not only was there an imminent threat according to the Trump administration, but Soleimani was also meeting with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at the time of the airstrike. Al-Muhandis was the founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah and the leader of multiple other militias.
The killing of General Soleimani and the re-establishment of U.S. deterrence has left the world a safer place. After the airstrike President Trump urged Iran – through the use of Swiss intermediaries – not to retaliate so strongly that it would provoke further military action. Indications are that Iran’s attack on the coalition bases in Iraq was intended to send a message rather than kill soldiers. It appears that the missiles were fired into areas of the bases that were unpopulated and where significant damage would be unlikely. Iraq’s prime minister’s office made a statement indicating that it had received an official warning from Iran prior to the attacks. This increases the chance that Iran wanted to give a show of force for its supporters but wanted to minimize the risk of actually provoking further military action from the United States. After these attacks, the government in Tehran used the same Swiss backchannels to inform president Trump that there would be no further retaliation from Iran.