On 3rd January 2020 a US Drone strike in Iraq killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. The action taken by the US resulted in reprisals by Iran as on the 8th January two American Air Bases were targeted in missile strikes. So who was Qassam Solemani and was his killing by the United States legal?
Who was Qassem Soleimani?
Qassem Soleimani was Iran’s most prominent military figure. Soleimani was head of Quds Force within the Iranian Revolurinaey Guard. The Quds Force essentially formed the basis of the Special Forces of Iran.
In this role, Soleimani was responsible for coordinating the support of Iran for proxy groups. Using proxy war (for example supporting Assad in Syria and the Houthi movement in the Civil War in Yemen). The co-operation of Soleimani with groups like Hezbollah (who the US and U.K. designate as terrorist organisations) led to the allegation that he was aiding and abetting terrorism and needed to be addressed.
What happened in the Strike?
Soleimani was killer in a carefully planned drone attack. A drone is an unmanned aircraft that can be operated remotely.
The attack actually took place in Iraq, not Iran. The missiles were targeted at a convoy leaving Baghdad Airport where Soleimani had just returned from Lebanon. Four members of an Iraqi militia group called the PMF were also killed.
Has this happened before?
Drone strikes have become an increasingly common way of targeting individuals considered a threat. The fact that they are unmanned significantly reduces the risk to attacking troops. However, more broadly, the United States has carried out operations to unilaterally kill individuals on foreign soil. These are commonly called ‘extrajudical killing’, as they take place without a proceeding judicial process (as would happen if someone was given the death penalty. Most notably:
Osama Bin Laden – May 2011
Osama Bin Laden was the leader of Al-Qaeda who had orchestrated the September 11th attacks against the United States that resulted in deaths of 2,997 people. He managed to evade capture during the War in Afghanistan escaping through the Tora Bora cave system. The CIA conducted one of the longest manhunts in History, eventually tracing Bin Laden to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In this instance, President Obama opted against a drone strike and sent special forces in to kill Osama Bin Laden.
Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi – October 2019
Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was the leader of ISIS having previously been a senior figure in Al-Qaeda. In a similar operation to the one against Bin Laden, Al Baghdadi was killed by US Special Forces.
Was the killing of Soleimani Legal?
International Law is incredibly complex and much harder to define than domestic laws, which are normally either codified or have very clear precedent.
In taking the action that they did the United States are likely to claim legality under Article 51 of the UN Charter. This says:
“ Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”
In his speech on the 8th January Trump said clearly that not only was Soleimani responsible for attacks on American citizens, but the US had evidence that he was planning even more such attacks. In the eyes of the US administration, the intelligence that they claim to have gave them justification under Article 51 to take pre-emptive action.
However, other legal scholars will argue that the right to carry out extrajudicial killings in this way only exists when they is a clear and imminent threat, which it seems there is unlikely to be.
Ultimately, law is only as powerful as the level to which it can be enforced. No major power is going to militarily take up arms against the US response and economic sanctions are likely to be counter to their own interests. The Realist view of global politics dominates here. Realists believe that global politics is constantly dominated by the security dilemma. The killing of Soleimani was calculated not only to remove an individual who was a threat, but perhaps more importantly, to send a clear message to the Iranian regime that the US will not permit Iran to destabilise the Middle East, an area of significant strategic, economic and political importance to the United States.