The Assassination of Qassem Suleimani: Imminent Threat of Peace

On January 6, just days after the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, requested that U.N. Secretary General António Guterres "establish an impartial inquiry into [the] lawfulness of Soleimani’s killing" under Article 99 of the U.N. charter, which gives the Secretary General the power to bring any matter to the Security Council that "may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

The inquiry is necessary, according to Callamard, because the "targeted killings of Qassem Soleiman and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis are most lokely [sic] unlawful and violate international human rights law." Callamard explained on Twitter that "To be justified under international human rights law, intentionally lethal or potentially lethal force can only be used where strictly necessary to protect against an imminent threat to life."

But, although the Trump administration has invoked the "imminent threat to life" defence, it has failed to offer any evidence. The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi reports that two U.S. officials who were briefed on the intelligence after the assassination told her that "the evidence suggesting there was to be an imminent attack on American targets is "razor thin".

The razor’s blade must have been fine indeed. All the intelligence the U.S. possessed was that Suleimani had been to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq; he had asked for the Supreme Leader’s approval for an operation, which he had not yet received; and Iran had been increasingly bellicose towards the U.S. None of these three points, either alone or together, is unusual. One U.S. official called it "a normal Monday in the Middle East."

But, if Suleimani was not assassinated because there was any imminent threat, why did Trump make the extraordinary and dangerous decision to kill him?

The choice to strike Iran by striking Suleimani provides a possible answer. And it was a choice. Because Suleimani posed no imminent threat, his elimination was not a necessity. And that it was not a necessity is evident from reports that the assassination was not the decision that Trump was forced to make but was only one on an aggressive menu of options offered to Trump. Since it didn’t have to be Suleimani, he didn’t pose an imminent threat.

And it didn’t have to be Suleimani. According to reporting by The New York Times, the Suleimani option was just "the most extreme" option on a "menu" of options military officials presented to Trump. According to the Times reporters, they really "didn’t think he would take it. . .. Top Pentagon officials were stunned." So much for the imminent threat.

Other options on the menu included "strikes on Iranian ships or missile facilities or against Iranian-backed militia groups in Iraq."

So, if it was a menu option, and not the only option, why did Trump do it? What was the motivation for the extraordinary step? Why kill Suleimani now? The "pattern of travel" suggests one possible answer. Because, it turns out, it was not a pattern of travel taken because of an imminent threat: it was a pattern of travel taken because of at least one, and possibly two, diplomatic missions. This revelation suggests the far more sinister possibility that General Suleimani was assassinated, not because he posed an imminent threat of danger, but because he posed an imminent threat of peace.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has confirmed that Suleimani was in Baghdad at the time of the drone strike on a diplomatic mission. Despairing of their ability to push America into war with Iran for them, Saudi Arabia had recently been exploring a consolation plan B: more peaceful relations with Iran. Iraq was providing the role of intermediary, and Saudi Arabia had recently sent them a de-escalation message for Iran. According to the Iraqi prime minister, the reason Suleimani was in Iraq was to deliver Iran’s reply. Abdul-Mahadi says that he had a meeting scheduled with Suleimani for 8:30am, just a few short hours before Suleimani was assassinated. Importantly, it is clear that the U.S. knew about these events because, according to reporting by Max Blumenthal, Trump personally thanked Abdul-Mahadi for the role he was playing.

Suleimani’s key role in this diplomatic scene that was playing out between Saudi Arabia and Iran would provide the U.S. with the motivation to kill him that is missing with the discrediting of the "imminent threat" claim. The U.S. anti-Iranian coalition would be critically wounded by the loss of Saudi Arabia, one of the driving engines behind maintaining and accelerating anti-Iran hostility. It would also provide motive to encourage the U.S. to strike Suleimani to the other driving engine of hostility to Iran, America’s anti-Iran coalition partner, Israel. Israel has worked hard to reverse history and nurture an alliance with its old enemy, Saudi Arabia, in order to encourage the U.S. to isolate Iran. Rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be a threat to Israel both in terms of its Iran policy and in terms of its periphery doctrine that likes to see it as enemy of one of those countries but never both.

And that might not have been the only worrisome diplomatic mission that Suleimani was on at the time. U.S. motivation may have been enhanced by a second diplomatic mission that explains Suleimani’s "pattern of travel." Scott Ritter reports that Lebanese officials say that Suleimani was in Lebanon on diplomatic business. Ritter says that that diplomatic business may have been "centered on gaining regional support for pressuring the United States to withdraw from both Syria and Iraq." Suleimani is known to have been working with like minded Iraqi politicians in the past to intensify this pressure. As recent reluctance to acknowledge or act on Iraqi requests for U.S. forces to leave Iraq shows, the U.S. would be very hostile to Suleimani’s mission, providing, once again, motivation, in the absence of the "imminent threat" motivation, to assassinate him.

As it grows increasingly clear that the Trump administration is unable to provide any evidence, either to the public or to congress, that Qassem Suleimani was on a mission to carry out imminent threats against America, a more sinister possibility rises up to take its place: that Suleimani was assassinated not because he represented an imminent threat of danger but because he represented an imminent threat of peace.

Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.