In reading and listening to the commentary in US media about the killing of Qassem Suleimani by the US government, even those who disapprove of the action do so largely on strategic and tactical grounds and claim that the US was morally right to do what it did. The argument they give is that Suleimani was the operational head of the Iranian government’s elite Quds force who oversaw a terrorist network in many countries that the US has invaded or otherwise has troops in and thus deserved to die because he was behind the deaths of many Americans. (Murtaza Hussain provides some background on Suleimani and how he was viewed in both Iran and Iraq.)
Whenever I hear people saying these things, my reaction is “Really?” Suleimani was small potatoes compared to what the US government and the CIA have been doing around the globe for decades.
The US government is no stranger to the dark arts of political assassinations. Over the decades it has deployed elaborate techniques against its foes, from dispatching a chemist armed with lethal poison to try to take out Congo’s Patrice Lumumba in the 1960s to planting poison pills (equally unsuccessfully) in the Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s food.
But the killing of Gen Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite military Quds force, was in in a class all its own. Its uniqueness lay not so much in its method – what difference does it make to the victim if they are eviscerated by aerial drone like Suleimani, or executed following a CIA-backed coup, as was Iraq’s ruler in 1963, Abdul Karim Kassem? – but in the brazenness of its execution and the apparently total disregard for either legal niceties or human consequences.
Vipin Narang, a political scientist at MIT, said the killing “wasn’t deterrence, it was decapitation”.
There has been no shortage of US interventions over the past half-century that have attempted – and in some cases succeeded – in removing foreign adversaries through highly dubious legal or ethical means. The country has admitted to making no fewer than eight assassination attempts on Castro, though the real figure was probably much higher.
William Blum, the author of Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, points to a litany of American sins from invasions, bombings, overthrowing of governments, assassinations to torture and death squads. “It’s not a pretty picture” is his blunt conclusion.
The CIA was deemed to have run so amok in the 1960s and 70s that in 1975 the Church committee investigated a numerous attempted assassinations on foreign leaders including Lumumba, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem and, of course, Castro. In the fallout, Gerald Ford banned US involvement in foreign political assassinations.
The list of terrorist actions by the CIA on behalf of the US government is long and extensive and very likely continues to this day in secret, to be revealed only later by a whistleblower. And yet these commentators never refer to the US as a terrorist state even when they use that label to describe identical actions by other countries.
Meanwhile the fallout from this killing continues. It brought out one of the largest crowds that Iran has ever seen, showing how the killing has unified Iranians. Iran has announced that it will no longer be committed to any aspect of the nuclear deal that was negotiated during the time of Barack Obama and that Donald Trump unilaterally abrogated. The Iraqi parliament has also voted to have the US withdraw all its troops from the country. There have also been attacks on an American military base in Kenya and rockets were fired at the Green Zone in Baghdad that encloses the US embassy.
Trump has tweeted that if Iran retaliates, he would order strikes on 52 targets that include sites important to Iranian culture. Observers were quick to point out that targeting cultural heritage sites constitutes a war crime under the United Nations. If Trump carries through that threat, the usual defense that it was in error would not hold. But these legal niceties are only applicable to nations and leaders who care about international law. If you are the head of a rogue nation that runs a terrorist network, and when you and your predecessors have committed multiple war crimes in the past and not suffered any repercussions, what is to stop you from committing a few more?