Perfidy and terror in the slaying of Soleimani



As the drumbeat for another US invasion in the Middle East grows, which Australia will doubtless be asked to support, it might be time to briefly assess the situation on the ground.

People hold posters showing the portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Major General Qassem Soleimani and chant slogans during a protest outside the US Consulate on 5 January 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)We are told that, once again, we must curb the ambitions of (oil rich) Iran by destroying this evil state because it may have the temerity to react to the killing of a 'dangerous terrorist'. So, even assuming that a state has the right to unilaterally determine who foreign officials are and how they die, is this claim actually justified?

On the basis that one who alleges must prove, our starting point should be that we have little reason to believe what we have been told by US intelligence services in the past. Remember Saddam's secret 'Weapons of Mass Destruction', which served as the figleaf for Operation Iraqi Liberation (later changed by some US government spinmeister who realised the moniker was too obvious to Operation Iraqi Freedom)? Remember, too, the multiple doctored dossiers put out by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to justify the attacks on Syria? For that matter, and for those more sympathetic to the right wing of US politics, remember the 'collusion with the Russians' which was supposed to have seen Trump elected but which was proved a fantasy by the Mueller report?

The immediate context of the Iran case does not build confidence. After withdrawing from an agreement with Iran whereby it would limit its nuclear capacity in exchange for sanctions relief, the US government has now assassinated the head of that country's Quds Force, the unconventional warfare component of the Sepah or Revolutionary Guards.

Assassination of political and other leaders is, of course, prohibited at international law outside outright war (not only by general human rights treaties and even the Geneva Conventions on warfare but also by specific principles on targeted killings and disappearances adopted by the UN). While the allegation is that Soleimani was planning 'imminent' violence against Western targets and that the attack was therefore in self-defence, there is less to this claim than meets the eye.

Firstly, the definition of 'imminent' used by the United States is not the dictionary definition. Under the 'Bethlehem' doctrine (named for its originator, an advisor to Binyamin Netanyahu's government) anyone who has previously engaged in action against Western interests is deemed an 'imminent' threat. Under this expanded definition, not accepted by most international lawyers, anyone who has ever fought (or planned to fight) against your government is therefore a legitimate target. 'Imminent threat' on this reading is therefore a concept sapped of all meaning.

Even the claim that Soleimani was a terrorist does not really bear scrutiny. Certainly, one can object to Iran's system of government (which produces plenty of refugees who are, incidentally, treated abominably by the US and, particularly, by Australia). That does not make every official in the government at any level worthy of death — let alone death without a trial.


"One can only pray that General Soleimani is not the Franz Ferdinand of our age."


It is, of course, true that Qassem Soleimani has lent his support to people who the US government and their allies have opposed on occasion. He was a supporter of the Syrian government's defence against Western-backed jihadis. He also provided support to Iraqi militias opposed to the US and their allies. Most distasteful to some, he also supported Palestinian and Lebanese armed groups against Israel.

It is difficult to argue that such support violated international law. The Iraqis were, after all, invaded by the US and their allies without (as is now generally acknowledged) any international law justification. The Syrians were bombed on a false prospectus and in alliance with jihadis who are generally agreed to have been responsible for the 9/11 attacks in the US. While the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Lebanese situations are more complex, it is difficult, in principle, to argue that armed resistance against armed occupation is a crime. After all, merely being on the other side of a conflict does not take one outside the protection of international law. We do not allow random assassinations. On these considerations, even the terror claim is starting to look thin.

It is worth remembering that one reason why his death has been mourned so passionately in Iraq and Iran, however, is his fight against Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) which saw him actually on the side of the US and their allies.

There is, however, one final aspect of the killing which not only makes it more abhorrent but actually turns the claim of aggression on its head. The outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister revealed to Parliament this week that he was due to meet with Soleimani on the day of his death. It turns out that there was shuttle diplomacy afoot to discuss a plan to de-escalate Middle East tensions according to a Saudi proposal. US President Trump had asked the Iraqis to mediate with the Iranians and Soleimani, one of Iran's most respected generals and emissaries, was there for the purpose. If this is true, and no-one from the US side has denied it, this was that most ancient of perfidies — a murder under a flag of parley. As Article 37 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions 1949 says, even in wartime:

'It is prohibited to kill, injure or capture an adversary by resort to perfidy. Acts inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or is obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence, shall constitute perfidy.'

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that Iran, assisted by elements of the Iraqi military, are now attacking US bases in Iraq. The Soleimani murder was a classic act of war — assassination has sparked a world war in the past — and is (unsurprisingly) being treated as such by the victim's state. One can only pray that General Soleimani is not the Franz Ferdinand of our age.

With this in mind, before committing to any more endless wars on 'terror', I suggest we need to reassess who the terrorists actually are.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: People hold posters showing the portrait of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Major General Qassem Soleimani and chant slogans during a protest outside the US Consulate on 5 January 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Soleimani, Iran, Iraq, US, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

Justin, power and perfidy go hand in hand. When you pray that Soleimani is not the Franz Ferdinand of our age I presume the catalyst to another war? 1530 James V (who wrote a bible) invited Armstrong of Gilnockie to have talks with him. They were to meet the Royal hunting party at Caerlanrig. Johnny and his men, not sensing any danger, went out from Gilnockie Tower unarmed and dressed themselves in their best finery, befitting a meeting with a monarch. What the king didn’t tell them was that there was an army of 10,000 men waiting to ambush them. On seeing them finely dressed, the king uttered with great indignance ‘what wants this knave that a king should have?’ meaning, why are these men dressed like kings? He immediately ordered their execution. He considered them traitors. Armstrong and his 35 men were hanged. Johnny Armstrong, horrified at this betrayal of trust said before he died, that he had been a fool to ‘seek grace’ in a ‘graceless face’. The Armstrongs clan may have been guilty of many things, but to their proud minds, duplicity, was repugnant. There is nothing new under the sun. Solieman is no different to BinLaden.
francis Armstrong | 08 January 2020

It's not difficult 'to reassess who the terrorists actually are'. Successive US administrations have a clear track record of assassinations - in south and central America, in east Asia, in the Middle East. It's impossible to pretend that the US does not exist but all the reasons in the world why our keep them at arm's length so far as is possible.
Ginger Meggs | 08 January 2020

Thanks for the facts and the warning about trust, at home and abroad. Whatever happens the aggressors will paint themselves as victims. The Victim,persecutor,rescuer goes around and round. And the real enemies of the state, the spin doctors will collect their pay.
Michael D. Breen | 09 January 2020

Not surprising! The US has a long and illustrious record of assassinating its own presidents and its residents are not averse to shooting multiple people in schools and other public places. It's the American way - based on the Wild West and Hollywood's Disney Land fantasy !! With hand on heart let all now proclaim, "God love America" !!
john frawley | 09 January 2020

The current situation in the Middle East closely resembles a toxic witches' brew on top of a powder keg. Several people have lit several long fuses to aforesaid powder keg. When the first fuse reaches the keg it will explode blowing the whole thing up. God alone knows what will happen when it blows. Quasem Soleimani was not a nice man. He was involved with the vicious repression of those who peacefully protested against the Iranian theocracy. What would have worried both the US and Israel is that various Iranian allies, including militias, were placing missiles which could strike into the heart of Israel in Syria and Lebanon. Soleimani was seen as the mastermind and co-ordinator of this, so he was 'taken out' with the head of Kateb Hezbollah. This is something out of the pages of Machiavelli: pure power politics.
Edward Fido | 09 January 2020

Articulate and influential. Aside from involuntarily ending up a possible vector for war I think Franz Ferdinand isn't a great selection from the list of suspects; Franz spent more time shooting pheasants than humans, perhaps Che Guevara might be closer to the mark; photogenic, a people's hero as evidenced by the funeral, oh yeah...a killer, too. Let's see if he inspires a pop tee shirt for Democrats, too. Thankfully Iran's fireworks display has given Soleimani a fitting send off; we can never know if those rockets missed their mark or landed ineffectively as planned. Was it just sabre rattling to appease his supporters but fall short of poking the bear...or genuine? Trying to apply "the enemy of my enemy is my ally" to his profile is fraught; the failing of that logic has been surprisingly regular and invariably fatal. Perfidy? A strong accusation to make without evidence or that little white flag on the bonnet of the car. One thing for sure, if he was tricked he won't do it again.
Ray | 09 January 2020

A stunning analysis that also exposes the disproportionality of the US strategy to "take Soleimani out." Thank you, Justin, for also showing up the false, excuse-laden and unjust premises upon which the Americans are once more poised to go to war. It will now require almost superhuman self-restraint on the part of the Iranians to step back from its brink. Please God that they, under pressure and persuasion through international diplomacy, manage somehow to do this!
Michael Furtado | 10 January 2020

Soliemani directed terrorism and war which killed thousands, yet his killing induces fervent handwringing. Writing in the London “Daily Telegraph”, Benedict Spence said people now “view real-life events almost entirely through the prism of their own bias.” This dangerous situation has come about because of the media playing partisan politics. 90% of US media pushed the Russia/Trump collusion hoax. When that failed, an anonymous CIA “whistleblower” was discovered to initiate impeachment proceedings. That person was identified by RealClearInvestigations as Eric Ciaramella who had ties to Joe Biden, ex-CIA chief John Brennan, and Ukrainain-American Alexandra Chalupa who was involved in Ukrainian efforts to sabotage the Trump campaign in 2016—the very subject of Trump’s now-famous telephone conversation last July. So when Nancy Pelosi says “This isn’t about politics…it’s about patriotism”, and then hangs onto the articles of impeachment, the farcical has become routine. Trump opposed the Washington Foreign Policy establishment and was branded a traitor and a Russian asset. Democratic presidential candidate, and Iraqi war veteran, Tulsi Gabbard, also opposes the Washington establishment. She was labelled a “Russian asset” by Hillary Clinton. She called Clinton a “warmonger”. Just imagine if Hillary Clinton—“We came, we saw, he [Qaddafi] died”—was President?
Ross Howard | 10 January 2020

The situation in the Middle East has always been volatile. The accidental shooting down of the Ukrainian civilian plane by the Iranians has ramifications. There have been independently unauthenticated reports of a mass protest in Teheran calling for the resignation of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The majority of Iranians always vote for the most progressive candidates allowed to stand in elections and are smarting under economic sanctions. One of the Trump administration's aims has been to facilitate regime change in Iran. This may not happen immediately or in the foreseeable future, but Soleimani's killing has shaken the Iranian establishment, who never thought the Americans would dare to do this.
Edward Fido | 12 January 2020

'Thou shalt not kill, Edward Fido!"
Michael Furtado | 19 January 2020

That's a rather flat reaction of yours, Michael Furtado. Christian theology does not condone murder, however, it does excuse killing another person in certain circumstances, including self defence. Whether President Trump, who claimed Soleimani was plotting further attacks on US forces in Iraq, was justified in ordering the death of the latter, is highly debatable. There is a legal opinion from Alan Dershowitz that it was. The Iranians dispute this and say they want it prosecuted as a war crime. The whole situation in Iraq is very muddied. No one comes out as a knight in shining armour. I see the situation there as Machiavellian realpolitik.
Edward Fido | 20 January 2020


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