The US drone-and-missile strike against General Qassem Soleimani last week was a tactical success. Soleimani, renowned commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed along with a half-dozen other leaders of Iraqi Shiite militia, all hostile to the United States.
They were accused by the US of perpetrating attacks on US and Iraqi interests and masterminding the attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad. And they planned future terrorist attacks, asserted the President and the Pentagon.
Nevertheless, Trump's action provoked doubts about the legality, prudence, and unintended consequences. While he and US spokespersons framed the killing as self-defence, critics from a human rights perspective framed the event as an extrajudicial execution — an assassination.
President Gerald Ford in 1976 banned assassination as legitimate US policy, partly in response to controversial CIA interventions in Asia, Latin America and Africa in the prior two decades. But the practice, under the label of self-defence, was revived by President George W. Bush after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. It was facilitated by the new technology of long-range drone aircraft flown remotely and firing precision-guided missiles at specific targets as small as a car or an individual identified as "terrorist". The Obama and Trump Administrations expanded this tactic.
Supporters of US drone strikes cite Article 51 of the UN Charter (Self-Defence) and assert the right of pre-emptive self-defence against terrorists. This assertion, first enunciated in 1837 by then Secretary of State Daniel Webster, has appeared in all of the President's National Security Strategy documents since 2001. But critics note that the doctrine of "pre-emptive" self-defence (to meet an imminent attack) too easily slides into "preventive self-defence" which can be twisted to legitimise action against any threat anywhere, any time, not just imminent.
The Geneva Conventions adopted in 1949 set the globally-accepted standards for the conduct of warfare. They explicitly outlaw military actions against civilians but implicitly condone military action against combatants. Soleimani was a uniformed soldier. But the US and Iran are not formally at war, so was the killing a political assassination? The US view is that since 2001 the US has been engaged in a war against terrorists, and thus attacks on terrorist perpetrators or leaders, whether uniformed or not, are legitimate.
Terrorists, even though they dress like civilians and merge with civilian populations, and profess liberationist or divinely inspired doctrines, do not deserve the protections prescribed by the Geneva Conventions, Washington asserts.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has expressed reservations about such killings. Its Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Agnes Callamard, stated that the killing of General Soleimani "most likely" violated international law. She added that the use of drones for targeted killings outside active hostilities was "almost never likely to be legal".
Finally, whether labelled self-defence or political assassination, is the extra-judicial killing of Soleimani prudent policy? Here Democrats have parted company with Republicans by decrying the killing on six grounds:
• It legitimates the targeting by Iran and other unscrupulous governments of counterpart US military leaders, possibly leading to tit-for-tat assassinations.
• It galvanises the Iranian government and its militia proxies to retaliate against US persons and interests everywhere, raising risks to all.
• It escalates the US-Iran rivalry from a "proxy war" to a direct military conflict that could risk the outbreak of wider war in the Middle East region, drawing in the Gulf States, Israel, and Russia.
• It will accelerate Iranian efforts to refine uranium and develop a nuclear weapon, posing an existential threat to Israel and triggering a counterpart development by Saudi Arabia and maybe Turkey.
• The unilateral killing risks alienating neutral and even allied partners of the US, resulting in further US isolation and reduced credibility of US leadership.
• The President's approval of the strike without prior consultation with Congress, or even informing it, was an over-reach of Constitutional powers by the Executive and a violation of the War Powers Act.
• Stephen Hoadley is an associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Auckland.