One of the bigger questions for observers since the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Major General Qasem Soleimani is whether the United States carried out its first blatant act of assassination in over 40 years. It’s not an easy discussion since the federal government appears to have a very different definition of assassination, if not multiple ones, compared to the general populace.
Merriam-Webster defines assassination as, “murder by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons: the act or an instance of assassinating someone (such as a prominent political leader).” Soleimani’s death fits this description given his role within the Iranian government. This is troublesome since the federal government is not supposed to conduct political assassinations based on multiple executive orders dating back to the Gerald Ford presidency (A brief quibble: it would be better for Congress to pass a law banning political assassinations since they are the ones who are supposed to set the rules of government based on the Constitution.). Ronald Reagan’s 1981 ban on assassination includes prohibiting direct and indirect participation in political killings. However, the government tends to run by its own rules and definitions depending on who resides in the White House, the Pentagon, or the State Department.
The State Department believes Soleimani’s death was not assassination.
“I did this for two years in the Bush administration,” someone only identified by the State Department as ‘Senior State Department Official Three’ told reporters on Friday. “Assassinations are not allowed under law. Revenge killings, non-judicial executions are not. The criteria is do you have overwhelming evidence that somebody is going to launch a military or terrorist attack against you. Check that box. The second one is do you have some legal means to, like, have this guy arrested by the Belgian authorities or something. Check that box because there’s no way anybody was going to stop Qasem Soleimani in the places he was running around – Damascus, Beirut. And so, you take lethal action against him. This is something that we have done many times over both Democratic and Republican administrations that I served in. It’s the same criteria; it was applied in this case and all cases.”
Not every entity out there is willing to call it an assassination. The Associated Press admits it’s tough to decide due to the complex nature of the issue along with the current situation in the Middle East, particularly Iraq. Duke University Law professor Madeleine Morris suggests to AP the fluid situation benefits the Trump administration’s reasoning for taking out Soleimani. “The problem is that governments have good reason to make very little public in this situation, which makes it very difficult to evaluate the situation politically or legally.”
There are still concerns, particularly due to Soleimani’s position within the Iranian government. He’s not Osama bin Laden, who was in no position of state authority when he was killed, or even former ISIS leader Abu al-Baghdadi. Soleimani was a member of the Iranian government, a government we are not at war with since Congress has never declared war or passed a declaration authorizing the use of military force. It’s akin to the United States deciding to conduct so-called lethal action against a Chinese or Russian general because they happened to be visiting Iraq. Any suggestion the killing of Soleimani is justified due to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps status as a declared United States terrorist entity is suspect because only Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have designated the military organization as terrorists, although Israel is no fan of the IRGC either.
Future implications need to be considered. Iran’s current response is cyberattacks on various government websites which may be their only option outside of more rockets towards Iraq. Let’s say a future administration decides to take things a step further and assassinate a military or political leader in a country with more than the occasional military maneuver relationship with China and Russia. There’s a reason why Ford, Carter, and Reagan all issued executive orders regarding assassinations. Their desire to avoid Bay of Pigs Part Deux is something only foolish thinkers would ignore. If we’re to believe the CIA, NSA, DARPA, etc. didn’t figure out other ways around the term ‘assassination.’
There’s also the diplomatic fallout. Iraq isn’t happy with the strikes and it could push them closer towards a relationship with Iran. This means Iran, instead of being isolated, might get access to newer U.S. weapons since we were the ones who decided to rebuild Iraq after ousting Saddam Hussein. The current influx of U.S. troops into Iraq would pale in comparison to what might be considered should Iraq and Iran suddenly cozy up and attack more U.S. assets (unless someone in D.C. decides it’s time to finally leave Iraq.). What’s to stop other countries with a bit of a leery relationship with Washington from deciding it’d be best to not work with America on trade deals or diplomatic efforts if the threat of assassination is on the table?
As for whether Soleimani was assassinated, it’s probably best to go towards the Merriam-Webster definition since it does fit the bill. Which means it’s time for either a new AUMF involving Iraq and Iran or time to just get out and stop militarily and politically messing around in other countries.