Since the strike on Qasem Soleimani, newsrooms have debated whether to use the term “assassination” to describe it. Numerous stories, including from the New York Times and NPR, have called the killing an assassination, as have politicians such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. NPR’s public editor explained the publication’s policy: “While we have not mandated the word’s use, it has been used in our coverage in headlines and in our stories. We feel it is an appropriate use of the word, which is defined as the killing of a political leader by surprise.”
The killing of foreign political leaders has a fraught history in the United States, detailed by the 1975 Senate Church Committee. That committee’s report implicated the American government in a number of political assassination plots, most notably against Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The Church Committee concluded that “short of war, assassination is incompatible with American principles, international order, and morality,” and in 1976 President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning political assassinations. But since then, presidents have distinguished between assassinations and “targeted killings,” arguing that the latter are necessary and permissible.
The distinction between targeted killings and assassinations is twofold. First, targeted killing is justified in wartime or in self-defense. Attorney general Eric Holder explained of Obama’s drone program that “the Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of violent attack, and international law recognizes the inherent right of self-defense.” Accordingly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified the killing of Soleimani with evidence that he was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks.”
Second, and just as important, “targeted killing” is used in reference to non-state actors, not political leaders. Since Donald Rumsfeld termed non-state actors “unlawful combatants” in 2002, the legal consensus has been that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to them. Though the legal status of terrorists remains unclear, the threshold for killing them is significantly lower than that for a military official.
Those using the term “assassination” argue that Soleimani’s status as an Iranian general renders him a political actor. If correct, that makes the killing especially alarming, because, as Karen J. Greenberg argues in the New York Times, “the policy of war designed for nonstate actors has now slipped into a conflict between nation-states.”
But since Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979, Iran has conducted itself more like an international crime syndicate than a sovereign state. The concept of state sovereignty as codified in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 serves as the basis for the rules-based international order. In World Order, Henry Kissinger defines the Westphalian system as one of “independent states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs and checking each other’s ambitions through a general equilibrium of power.” Within this order, national sovereignty carries the obligation of recognizing international borders and the independence of other countries. In other words, a regime can be considered a sovereign state only if it lives up to a standard of behavior.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has never met that standard. In the Ayatollah’s conception of international relations, the state is a tool to be wielded in the service of a revolutionary ideological struggle. The organizing principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the unity of the Islamic umma, or community of believers. Accordingly, the Iranian constitution calls on its officials to advance a foreign policy that “prepare[s] the way for the formation of a single world community” transcending national borders. This exhortation emerged from Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1970 manifesto, Velayat-e faqih (Islamic Government), in which he argued that the Middle Eastern borders adopted after World War I “separated the various segments of the Islamic umma [community] from each other and artificially created separate states.” As Kissinger puts it, the Iranian regime claimed “the formal protections of the Westphalian system even while proclaiming it did not believe in it . . . and intended ultimately to replace it.”
Indeed, the inaugural act of Khomeini’s government was to flout international order in holding American diplomatic personnel hostage for 444 days. Given the centrality of diplomatic immunity to the Westphalian system, “revolutionary Iran’s message should have been clear: The Islamic Republic sets itself against the established world order in every regard,” writes diplomat Charles Hill. While American journalists refer to Soleimani as a “senior figure in a sovereign government’s military,” the Iranian government’s foundational text calls for the dissolution of sovereignty altogether.
Soleimani led the Quds Force, which is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — not the Iranian military. This is not merely a nominal distinction. As the Council on Foreign Relations explains, Khomeini established the IRGC in order to circumvent the legal and political restraints of state institutions such as the army. As the “IRGC’s de facto external affairs branch,” Soleimani’s Quds Force funds and supports proxy groups across the region in order to export the Iranian revolution.
In keeping with the revolutionary vision of a vast caliphate, the Quds Force has successfully established footholds in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. First developed in Lebanon with the creation of the Islamic Jihad group in 1982, the model entails establishing Shia militia groups in sovereign states undergoing sectarian conflict and supplying them with weapons and training, all in the service of Iranian revolutionary ideology.
Had ISIS succeeded in supplanting the Iraqi or Syrian government, declared itself a sovereign state, and successfully governed their territory, would the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have been considered a political assassination? I doubt it. The principal difference between ISIS and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is that the latter has existed for a longer period of time, inuring the West to its menacing behavior. None of this is to render a judgment on whether killing Soleimani was the most prudent course of action. But as journalists are fond of saying, words matter. Calling the attack on Soleimani an assassination obscures the nature of the Quds Force as well as the nature of the Iranian regime.