Assassination or Self-Defense: Suleimani


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Anita Srinivasan

The United States is considered a superpower by several countries around the world. With this title comes many responsibilities, one of which is the necessity to strategically protect our citizens and the interests of our allies abroad.

One of the countries with which the U.S. has frequently come into turmoil is Iran. Tensions have been at an all-time high between the two since U.S. President Donald Trump took office. Most recently, on December 27, 2019, Iranian-backed militia Kataeb Hezbollah fired rockets into a U.S. base in Iraq, resulting in the death of one American contractor and wounding four others.

U.S. officials blamed the militia group after the attack. In response, Trump ordered a drone strike which saw the death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who was considered as the second highest ranked leader in Iran.

The death of Suleimani has brought rise to debates in the U.S. regarding whether it constitutes an assassination. While the U.S. does not have a clear definition on the term, the AP Stylebook defines it as “the murder of a politically important or prominent individual by surprise attack.” Assassination, as defined here, is illegal in both U.S. and International law.

The only currently accepted exception to this is in the case of “self-defense.” For an attack to be considered “self-defense,” the threat against our country must be “imminent” and the retaliation must be “necessary and proportionate.” Therefore, we must consider the criteria for both the crime and its loophole before arriving at a definite conclusion.

If we conclude that the attack was an assassination, it could affect our relationships with our allies, leading to the possibility of less aid during war time and negative effects on trading. In a world that is increasingly globalized, our citizens will be directly affected by the repercussions.

To address whether the attack constituted an assassination, it is imperative to consider whether our drone attack satisfies the two conditions: “politically motivated” and “surprise attack”. On the surface, the attack seems like an assassination. We can confirm that our attack was political in nature since the Pentagon reported that the strike was to “protect U.S. interests.” The surprise condition could be considered satisfied as well, since the U.S. and Iran have not formally declared war against each other.

However, since the attack was in retaliation to the earlier attack which killed one contractor, we must consider whether our retaliation fits the loophole of “self-defense.” The U.S. had previously stated that General Suleimani was a “capable adversary”—blaming him for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers.

Furthermore, the attack itself was proportionate. Even though the focus was on the death of General Suleimani, about two-dozen other soldiers from the Quds force were also attacked. Therefore, it would not fit the true description of an assassination which is a “targeted attack of a sole individual.”

After evaluating individual criteria for both definitions, I believe that the attack best fits the description of self-defense. To further avoid confusion over the extent of our retaliations in the future, we must provide clear definitions of both an “assassination” and “self-defense.” By creating clear definitions, we can further solidify our stance on international issues and better protect our citizens and interests abroad.