U.S. Strike on Qassem Soleimani Leads to More Questions than Answers

By Troy Parker, Associate Editor

On January 3rd, 2020, the United States conducted an airstrike on a car departing Iraq. The car contained the second most powerful man in Iran—General Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was responsible for dozens of attacks on U.S. personnel over many years and was labeled as a terrorist in 2011. However, many questions now emerge from the ashes of this strike, including: how did we get here? Did President Trump have the legal authority to do this? And what is to come of the growing tensions between the two countries?

The U.S. and Iran have not had a diplomatic relationship since 1980. A breakthrough appeared imminent with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran Nuclear Deal. This was a multi-nation deal to limit the Iranian nuclear program, decrease their already established missile stockpile, and allow inspectors into the Iranian facilities. However, in 2018 President Trump withdrew from the deal, claiming it to be “defective at its core”, while the U.S.’s European allies remained in.  Following this, the United States introduced crippling sanctions on Iran in an attempt to bring the country back to the negotiating table. This did not seem to work, and Iranian aggression appeared to grow. Following the withdrawal, U.S. drones, oil tankers, and U.S. personnel abroad have all been targets of Iranian military proxies, largely with the aid of Soleimani.

More recently, on December 27th, 2019, a US contractor was killed, and several others were wounded by rockets launched by Kataib Hezbollah. Kataib Hezbollah was formerly led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed in the strike on Soleimani and was backed by Iranian resources. The U.S. responded by five strikes on Kataib Hezbollah in Syria and Iraq. Following the U.S. strikes, Kataib Hezbollah laid siege to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, eventually taking the compound over for 24 hours. The protestors exited the compound after negotiating with the Iraqi Prime Minister demanding U.S. troops leave Iraq. To the surprise of many at the Pentagon, President Trump opted to respond with the most extreme measure presented, ordering the drone strike on Iranian General Soleimani. This decision was rejected by Bush and Obama as futile for the U.S. goals in the region and fear of escalating military actions.

In the aftermath, many now question the legality of Trump’s decision to assassinate a foreign state official. Domestically, the Trump administration cited the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the law passed nearly two decades ago when the United States went into Iraq. This 2002 AUMF states clearly that the use of force is appropriate for a threat by Iraqor to enforce a U.N. resolution regarding Iraq– neither which seem to be the case here. Interestingly, the Trump administration did not cite the 2001 AUMF, which allows force to be used against terrorist or their supporters who were affiliated with the September 11thattacks.

Although Soleimani was labeled a terrorist to the United States in 2011, he was also a state actor in a major country of the region. This is vastly different from every other strike conducted by the U.S. military with this authorization, which have historically been aimed at non-state actors. Extending the AUMF to allow the Executive Branch to attack a foreign nation, basically a declaration of war, has many claiming the law has extended far beyond its original purpose. The Trump administration has pushed back, claiming that they do have this authority and executed it appropriately. Two things are for certain in U.S. law, assassinations cannot be carried out by executive orders, and the United States Congress has not declared war on Iran.

Around the world, many wonder about the U.S.’s statements of the need to stop an imminent attack being planned by Soleimani.  The international test for deciding when an attack is imminent declares that there must be an instant attack, that is overwhelming, leaving no choice, and no moment for deliberation. If the Trump administration releases information proving this, their critics will likely quiet down. It would also present a strong domestic argument for the President’s Article II powers, needing to respond and defend the nation. However, following a recent Congressional briefing, many members on both sides of the aisle claim the Trump administration has failed to do this. It does not seem that any information has been released to show any imminentattack was coming.

Others have already argued that the United States was practicing self-defense by killing Soleimani given the recent incidents by the Iranian proxies. However, without the intelligence information of an imminent threat, no real determination can be made on the legality of the U.S. strike. Furthermore, if there was an imminent attack and need for self-defense, it would be hard to justify the assassination of a national leader, rather than not just destroying the attacking proxy group. Internationally, the legal concept and definition of self-defense seems to be still ever evolving, but many people confidently argue Trump violated international law with this attack.

After the death of Soleimani, Iran promised major retaliations against the United States, which they carried out in January 7th. Dozens of missiles were fired at two coalition bases in Iraq, directly from the Iranian military. While no casualties have been reported, it was a very tense moment for the two countries. President Trump did not carry out his tweeted threat to attack 52 Iranian sites if the Iranians retaliated for the Soleimani attack. His officials also had to walked back his comments about attacking cultural sites, appearing in the same tweet—which would constitute a war crime. Neither side claims to want war, and both sides seem to be ceasing attacks on each other for the moment. However, the United States did reimplement their sanctions on Iran.

The question remains: besides killing a major U.S. enemy, what came of the attack on Soleimani? First, Iraq’s legislature has voted to expel the U.S. troops from their borders. While the conditions of this are currently unknown, this is something Iran has wanted for years and also opens up the potential for the return of ISIS in the area. Second, Iran has now fully withdrawn from the JCPOA, much to the dismay of the U.S.’s European allies and leaving the future of Iran’s nuclear program uncertain. And finally, the world is still questioning the legality of Trump’s attack and a new Presidential war powers debate has starting in the U.S. On January 9th, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to limits Trump’s ability to attack Iran without prior approval, with many claiming it will also pass the Senate next week. Others have begun to call for a complete overhaul of the 2002 AUMF. In the end, whether the Trump administration will even view this new resolution as binding law, and listen to the will of Congress, is yet to be seen.




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