Face-off: The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani

By Matt Slade and Ryan Witter


On January 3rd, the United States carried out a drone strike near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. According to the U.S., this attack was executed to stop an imminent threat from Iran and Soleimani, who is the commander of the Quds Force, a unit within the Revolutionary Guard that is responsible for extraterritorial operations in the Middle East. The U.S. and several other countries, notably Saudif Arabia, label the Quds Force a terrorist organization. Iran responded to the killing of one of its top generals and national heroes with threats of force that materialized days later in an attack on US troops stationed in Iraq, as well as with fully withdrawing from the 2015 International Nuclear Deal. 

Was the killing of Soleimani justified? 

In favor of the action

The US is justified in its attack in Baghdad and in the killing of Gen. Soleimani. Several days after the attack Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that, “there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qassem Soleimani. We don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where.” Secretary Pompeo had previously called attention to an attack from Iran that killed an American contractor in late December of last year as evidence of malicious intent from Iran and Soleimani. 

President Trump also indicated that certain intelligence pointed to an attack at an American embassy in Iraq. Given this, it is clear the U.S. had reason to believe that in the near future, General Soleimani would authorize an attack that would put lives at risk. In taking preventative action by killing Soleimani, the US prevented this attack. 

Beyond this, as the leader of the Quds Force, Soleimani is responsible for countless deaths in the Middle East. The Quds Force has been linked to various militant groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and Iran is believed to have been behind both the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut and an attack on French and American service members. The Quds Force has also assisted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his efforts to hold onto power in the Syrian Civil War. 

Looking at the history of the Quds Force reveals a pattern of violence and sponsoring terrorism in the Middle East, killing Soleimani was justified as a way to limit the capabilities of the Quds Force in its mission to advance the Iranian revolution and wreak havoc across the region.  

In opposition of the action

The U.S.’s drone strike in Baghdad and the killing of General Qassem Soleimani is unjustified. It is true that under Soleimani’s direction the Quds Force killed over 100 Americans and wounded thousands of American coalition partners in Iraq and assisted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. For this, the general had to be held accountable. 

However, assassinating Soleimani was not the way to do so. In denying Soleimani the due process of law that it guarantees its own citizens, the U.S. not only acted unethically but also likely broke international law. United Nations Charter Law permits states to act in self-defense in response to or in anticipation of an armed attack. However, anticipatory self-defense is only legal when it is a necessity that is “instant, overwhelming and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” 

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnès Camallard, the “test is unlikely to be met” in Soleimani’s case. While President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have publicly justified Soleimani’s assassination by claiming the general was planning imminent attacks on either American military bases or embassies they have failed to provide any hard evidence for these accusations. Moreover, the U.S.’s unilateral killing of Soleimani makes it more difficult to credibly oppose and condemn similar measures taken by foreign nations. 

Although Soleimani’s assassination has not led to war between the U.S. and Iran as many feared it would, it is yet another instance of dangerous escalation between the two countries. Despite what the Trump Administration might have you believe, killing Soleimani was an unjustified move that highlighted the U.S.’s disregard for international law and potentially increased the threat that Iran poses to American national security.

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