About that Iranian general

(Credit: Getty Images)

Remember that Iranian general the United States assassinated back in January? The one whose killing the Trump administration justified as necessary to stop imminent attacks on American targets?

Just kidding on that imminence thing.

In the legally required notice outlining the legal and policy rationale behind the killing of Qassem Soleimani delivered to Congress today, the Trump administration dropped all assertions that the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force was assassinated to prevent an imminent attack.

While the notice argues that under Article II of the Constitution the president has the power as commander-in-chief to authorize military in the face of an imminent threat of attack against the United States, the notice carefully avoids making any such claim of imminence in its statement of the facts surrounding the Jan. 2 operation:

The President directed this action in response to an escalating series of attacks in preceding months by Iran and Iran-backed militias on United States forces and interests in the Middle East region. The purposes of this action were to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests, to degrade Iran’s and Qods Force-backed militias’ ability to conduct attacks and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks on, and threats to United States interests.

No mention of an impending attack there. Nor in this later passage:

Iran’s past and recent activities, coupled with intelligence at the time of the air strike, indicated that Iran’s Qods Force posed a threat to the United States in Iraq, and the air strike against Soleimani was intended to protect United States personnel and deter future Iranian attack plans against United States forces and interests in Iraq and threats emanating from Iraq.

So, to summarize, why did the United States kill Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 2, bringing us to the brink of war with Iran?

  • In response to prior attacks
  • In response to an escalating series of attacks
  • To deter Iran from making future attacks
  • To deter future Iranian attack plans
  • To degrade the capabilities of Iran and its Iraqi militia proxies

None of this amounts to the kind of immediate threat that the Trump administration claimed required it to assassinate the highest-ranking military leader of a rival government. Instead, it sounds like a deliberate, premeditated, act of war. Looks like I was right when I wrote this a month ago:

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

Just Security has posted a lengthy and detailed analysis of the Trump administration’s notice to Congress. You can read it here.

That the Trump administration lied about its justification for killing Soleimani is probably the least surprising fact in the whole sordid affair. The most surprising is that they complied with the law and reported to Congress at all.

Cue Inigo Montoya

The last week of nail-biting US foreign policy and flirtation with all-out war against Iran has served to highlight a couple of basic concepts that the Trump administration clearly does not comprehend. I’m going to touch on one here.

Let’s talk about the concept of “imminence.” The assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by drone strike in Iraq a week ago was justified, according to President Trump, because Soleimani was planning “imminent and sinister” attacks that would kill Americans. The president elaborated:

“We took action last night to stop a war,” Trump said during brief remarks at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. “We did not take action to start a war.”

Without divulging details about what led to the early morning airstrike that killed Soleimani and nine others, the president said the United States “caught” the general “in the act and terminated him.”

OK, sounds serious. After all, the standard definition of “imminent” is that something is “likely to occur at any moment.”

Unless you’re Secretary of State Mike Pompeo …

Apparently the secretary also doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “consistent.”

Of course it could also be that there was no looming threat, imminent or otherwise. Perhaps the assassination of Soleimani was part of a larger, planned operation, to remove the leadership of Iran’s Quds Force, essentially the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has served as the primary means by which Iran has cultivated militia and terrorist clients and waged proxy war across the region to advance its foreign policy and security goals.

At least that’s the implication of a new report in the Washington Post this afternoon:

On the day the U.S. military killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad, U.S. forces carried out another top secret mission against a senior Iranian military official in Yemen, according to U.S. officials.

The strike targeting Abdul Reza Shahlai, a financier and key commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force who has been active in Yemen, did not result in his death, according to four U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The unsuccessful operation may indicate that the Trump administration’s killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week was part of a broader operation than previously explained, raising questions about whether the mission was designed to cripple the leadership of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or solely to prevent an imminent attack on Americans as originally stated.

If this latest report is accurate, then what the United States did in assassinating Soleimani was not a defensive use of pre-emptive military force, but an aggressive act of war. One which, so far, has not spiraled out of control.

So far.