The killer question

Was America’s assassination of Qassem Suleimani justified?

A fierce debate swirls on its legality; and on whether it will be good for America



I
T WAS, ACCORDING to David Petraeus, a former American army general and director of the CIA, “more consequential” than the killing of Osama bin Laden or of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Few bemoaned the demise of the jihadist leaders of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

But the killing on January 3rd by drone strike of Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign-operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has sparked a furore over the legality and the impact of his assassination.

The American authorities dislike the word “assassination”, because it implies a flouting of international and humanitarian law. Indeed, some human-rights lawyers see the use of drones to kill people as almost always unlawful.

Agnès Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has argued that “outside the context of active hostilities, the use of drones for targeted killing is almost never likely to be legal....lethal force can only be used where strictly necessary to protect against an imminent threat.”

She has deplored the “kill lists” of what the Americans call “specially designated global terrorists” since they have no way of proving their innocence, and in effect face a sentence of death without due process of law. She has criticised the Trump administration for killing General Suleimani.

The Trump administration has argued that General Suleimani indeed posed an “imminent threat” but will find it hard to present evidence that satisfies its critics. It can also point as precedents to the activities of its predecessors.

At the end of 2016, just before he left office, Barack Obama issued a report on the legal framework guiding the United States’ use of force (which had included a raid on Pakistani territory in 2011 without the local authorities’ knowledge to kill bin Laden). It says: “Using targeted lethal force against an enemy consistent with the law of armed conflict does not constitute an ‘assassination’.”

Assassinations, it notes, are unlawful under an executive order signed by Ronald Reagan in 1981 (which updated those by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter). But today there is “a new and different kind of conflict against enemies who do not wear uniforms or respect geographic boundaries and who disregard the legal principles of warfare.”

For the Trump administration, even though General Suleimani was an official of the Iranian state, the Shia militias that he oversaw and cheered on in Iraq and elsewhere fall in the terrorist category; in April the Trump administration formally designated the IRGC a “foreign terrorist organisation”.

The campaign against international terrorism falls in the grey area between policing at home and waging war abroad, with few of the well-established laws and norms that attempt to govern them. In the Pentagon’s latest rulebook, it lets armed forces operate as they do in conventional war zones and hit terrorist targets at will in places designated “areas of active hostilities”, including parts of Yemen, Pakistan and Niger, and all of Somalia. The Americans have unleashed hundreds of drone strikes, air strikes and ground raids.

In many ways, America is following the precedent set by Israel, the state that over the past half-century has surely most actively pursued a policy of hunting down and killing foes abroad—not least when it sought to exact retribution against those responsible for the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. According to Ronen Bergman, an Israeli journalist whose history of the subject, “Rise and Kill First”, was published in 2018, Israel’s security services have carried out some 2,700 assassinations.

The killing of Palestinians suspected of planning or perpetrating violence against Israelis has been relentlessly conducted also in the West Bank and Gaza, territories controlled by Israel that seek to become an independent Palestinian state.

The Israelis were at first criticised by Western governments for violating international and humanitarian law. But after al-Qaeda’s attacks on America in September, 2001, the American administrations of both George Bush and Mr Obama, and more recently the British and French governments, followed their example in tracking down and killing enemies abroad, sometimes including their own citizens, by using drones.

Particularly in the past decade or so, the Americans (and their Israeli allies) have sought to apply more elastic rules, while broadly invoking the principle of “self-defence against non-State actors on the territory of another State.” Due process, it is argued, cannot be applied when responding to an imminent attack or when the capture or extradition of a suspected enemy is not feasible.

Definitions of “self-defence”, “active hostilities” and “imminent” are endlessly argued over. Philippe Sands, a human-rights lawyer who has charged both the American and British governments with violations of the laws of war, has argued that it all hinges on whether a situation of armed conflict (war) exists. “If it doesn’t, extrajudicial executions are a total no-no in all circumstances. If armed conflict exists, then every case turns on the facts.” So each case must be judged on its merits.

The snag here, in the Israelis’ view, is that they are locked in “an armed conflict short of war”, that their survival as a nation cannot depend on the niceties of the law, and that in any case the situation in Gaza and the West Bank in legal terms “falls somewhere in the middle”. The Americans may apply a similar fuzziness to the state of animosity between the US and Iran, seeing that General Suleimani’s men—including elite units sent abroad, undercover agents and proxies—have been held responsible for numerous attacks on Western and Israeli targets, as far afield as Argentina and Bulgaria.

But does it work?

If the legality of assassinations is endlessly debated, so is the question of their effectiveness. Clearly a successful assassination works in one sense, of doling out retribution and punishment. But, to use General Petraeus’s term, how “consequential” is it in deterring and defeating the enemy?

In the long and varied history of assassination, the results have often been disputed, and the consequences unintended. It is generally accepted, for instance, that a bullet fired by a Serbian nationalist started the first world war and even paved the way towards the second, though the bonfire which this ignited in 1914 was ready to be lit.

The killing in 1961 of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first prime minister, often blamed on the CIA, helped set that country on its post-colonial path to mayhem. The murder in 1966 of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister, led to a dreadful civil war. And the killing in 1994 of Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, set off Africa’s worst genocide.

In the Middle East, similarly, assassinations have also changed the course of history. The killing of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat in 1981 chilled the peace that he had negotiated with Israel. The murder of Israel’s prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish fanatic in 1995, severely dimmed the prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

More recently the Saudis and the Iranians have both made clear that they will kill perceived enemies of the state at home or abroad: witness the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul because of his criticism of the country’s crown prince, Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

Israeli governments remain wedded to the idea that assassinating their enemies keeps them on the defensive and disrupts their plans. That, too, must be the understanding of Mr Trump. But the result has not always been what was desired. Israel’s botched assassination on Jordanian soil in 1997 of Khaled Mashal, who went on to become leader of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group that has carried out myriad suicide attacks, was a costly fiasco.

The killing of other Hamas figures, including the movement’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, has had little obvious impact on the movement’s popularity or capabilities.

After the Israelis assassinated Abbas al-Musawi, leader of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia movement in 1992, he was succeeded by the cleverer Hassan Nasrallah, who has been even more of a thorn in Israel’s flesh—with the encouragement and close-co-operation of General Suleimani.

Yet the idea of organisational decapitation remains seductive to would-be strategic assassins: cut off the leader and watch the body twitch through its death throes. In a book published last November, Jenna Jordan of the Georgia Institute of Technology examines more than 1,000 cases involving the killing or capture of leaders of terrorist or insurgent groups.

She says three factors contribute to a group’s resilience afterwards: its degree of bureaucracy, ability to draw on local resources and ideological zeal. These qualities ensure that its mission does not depend on a single leader.

The death last October of Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State, who blew up himself (and two of his children) to avoid capture by American forces in Syria, has disrupted IS, but perhaps not in a lasting manner. IS ranks highly on all three of Ms Jordan’s factors. It has kept meticulous records and exported its procedures to international franchises that can apply them independently.

Though it no longer pulls in $1m a day, as it once did, it still has deep pockets, and is likely to benefit from local Sunni disaffection in Syria. Its ideological purity resonates independently of Baghdadi, to whom a successor was named within days. It has proved its resilience before. It is notable that Mr Baghdadi rose to the top because two predecessors were killed in American strikes in 2006 and 2010.

General Suleimani will no doubt be hard to replace. He was the right-hand man to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and no obvious candidate can take that role. But like Baghdadi, he had created something much bigger than himself that does not depend on him alone. His network will still have much the same capabilities as when he was alive.

And because it has been so active across the Middle East, says John Raine of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think-tank, the Quds Force has “a pool of talent...a battle-hardened cadre” of people used to waging asymmetric campaigns. And for a while at least, outrage in Iran at the assassination is fuelling a thirst for revenge and has drowned out anti-regime protests.

Then there is the impact on Iraq. The killing of General Suleimani at the country’s international airport plainly flouted that country’s sovereignty, enraging many Iraqis who had previously welcomed American troops on their soil.

If, as some fear, the jihadists of Islamic State revive in Iraq in the absence of American forces that had previously beaten them down, the new balance could tilt against America. And if the Iraqis do kick the Americans out, summarily or under a more sedate timetable, his assassination will have produced just the result that General Suleimani would have hoped for.

Financial Markets’ Iran Delusion

A restrained reprisal by Iran following the assassination of its top military commander has led markets to conclude that the latest threat to the global economy has been removed. But just because Iran and the United States have so far avoided a full-scale war does not mean that markets are out of the woods.

Nouriel Roubini

roubini136_Wang YingXinhua via Getty_stock market


LONDON – Following the United States’ assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani and Iran’s initial retaliation against two Iraqi bases housing US troops, financial markets moved into risk-off mode: oil prices spiked by 10%, US and global equities dropped by a few percentage points, and safe-haven bond yields fell.

In short order, though, despite the continuing risks of a US-Iran conflict and the implications that it would have for markets, the view that both sides would eschew further escalation calmed investors and reversed these price movements, with equities even approaching new highs.

That turnabout reflects two assumptions. First, markets are banking on the fact that neither Iran nor the US wants a full-scale war, which would threaten both the Iranian regime and US President Donald Trump’s re-election prospects. Second, investors seem to believe that the economic impact of a conflict would be modest. After all, oil’s importance as an input in production and consumption has fallen sharply since past oil-shock episodes, such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Moreover, the US itself is now a major energy producer, inflation expectations are much lower than in past decades, and there is little risk of central banks hiking interest rates following an oil-price shock.

Both assumptions are clearly flawed. Even if the risk of a full-scale war may seem low, there is no reason to believe that US-Iranian relations will return to the status quo ante. The idea that a zero-casualty strike on two Iraqi bases has satisfied Iran’s need to retaliate is simply naive.

Those Iranian rockets were merely the first salvo in a response that will build up as November’s US presidential election approaches. The conflict will continue to feature aggression by regional proxies (including attacks against Israel), direct military confrontations that fall short of all-out war, efforts to sabotage Saudi and other Gulf oil facilities, impeded Gulf navigation, international terrorism, cyber attacks, nuclear proliferation, and more. Any of these could lead to an unintentional escalation of the conflict.

Moreover, the Iranian regime’s survival – its leaders' top priority – is more threatened by an internal revolution than by a full-scale war. Because an invasion of Iran is unlikely, the regime could survive a war (despite a very damaging aerial bombing campaign) – and even benefit as Iranians rally around the regime, as they briefly did in response to the killing of Suleimani.

Conversely, a full-scale war and the ensuing spike in oil prices and global recession would lead to regime change in the US, which Iran badly desires. So, Iran not only can afford to escalate, but it has all the incentives to do so, initially through proxies and asymmetric warfare, to avoid provoking an immediate US reaction.

The assumption about what a conflict would mean for markets is equally mistaken. Though the US is less dependent on foreign oil than in the past, even a modest price spike could trigger a broader downturn or recession, as happened in 1990. While an oil-price shock would boost US energy producers’ profits, the benefits would be outweighed by the costs to US oil consumers (both households and firms).

Overall, US private spending and growth would slow, as would growth in all of the major net-oil-importing economies, including Japan, China, India, South Korea, Turkey, and most European countries. Finally, although central banks would not hike interest rates following an oil-price shock, nor do they have much space left to loosen monetary policies further.

According to an estimate by JPMorgan, a conflict that blocks the Strait of Hormuz for six months could drive up oil prices by 126%, to more than $150 per barrel, setting the stage for a severe global recession. And even a more limited disruption – such as a one-month blockade – could push the price up to $80 per barrel.

But even these estimates do not fully capture the role that oil prices play in the global economy. The price of oil can spike much more than a basic supply-demand model would suggest, because many oil-dependent sectors and countries will engage in precautionary stockpiling. The risk that Iran could attack oil production facilities or disrupt major shipping routes creates a “fear premium.”

Hence, even a modest oil-price increase to $80 per barrel would lead to a sustained risk-off episode, with US and global equities falling by at least 10%, in turn, hurting investor, business, and consumer confidence.

It is worth remembering that global corporate capital spending was already severely dampened last year, owing to worries about an escalation in the US-China trade and technology war and the possibility of a “hard” Brexit. Just as these risks – that is, the “option value of waiting” – were receding, a new one has emerged.

Leaving aside the direct negative impact of higher energy prices, fears of an escalating US-Iran conflict could lead to more precautionary household saving and lower capital spending by firms, further weakening demand and growth.

Moreover, even before that risk emerged, some analysts (including me) warned that growth this year might be as tepid as growth in 2019. Markets and investors had been looking forward to a period of easier monetary policies and an end to the tail risks associated with the trade war and Brexit.

Many market watchers were hoping that the synchronized global slowdown of 2019 (when growth fell to 3%, compared to 3.8% in 2017) would end, with growth approaching 3.4% this year. But this outlook ignored many remaining fragilities.

Now, despite Wall Street’s optimism, even a mild resumption of US-Iran tensions could push global growth below the mediocre level of 2019. A more severe conflict that falls short of war could increase oil prices to well above $80 per barrel, possibly pushing equities into bear territory (a decrease of 20%) and leading to a global growth stall. Finally, a full-scale war could drive the price of oil above $150 per barrel, ushering in a severe global recession and a fall of over 30% for equities markets.

While the probability of a full-scale war remains low for now (no more than 20%, in my view), the chances of simply returning to the pre-assassination status quo are even lower (say, 5%).

The most likely scenario is that the situation escalates into a new grey area (indirect conflict and direct clashes falling short of war) that would drive up the risk of a full-scale war. At that new baseline, the market’s current complacency will look not just naive, but utterly delusional.

The risk of a growth stall or even a global recession is now much higher and rising.


Nouriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University's Stern School of Business and Chairman of Roubini Macro Associates, was Senior Economist for International Affairs in the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton Administration. He has worked for the International Monetary Fund, the US Federal Reserve, and the World Bank. His website is NourielRoubini.com.

Federal Reserve’s embrace of higher inflation is ‘momentous’ for markets

Funds pile into gold, commodities and inflation-protected bonds as hedges for price rises

Jennifer Ablan



Everything worked in 2019. US stocks, junk bonds, silver, oil, bitcoin and even Greece-focused exchange traded funds posted stunning gains, boosted by easy central bank policies.

Now new risks lurk, as the US Federal Reserve continues to keep interest rates low and pursue monthly liquidity injections, as well as purchases of Treasury bills at a similar magnitude as previous rounds of quantitative easing. Such efforts have helped to send nearly every asset class into “bubbly” territory.

But a growing band of voices on Wall Street is warning of a possible consequence of this ever-looser monetary policy: inflation, which could dominate headlines this year for the first time in many.

Jeffrey Gundlach, chief executive of DoubleLine Capital, said it was a remarkable day for financial markets in late October, when Fed chair Jay Powell said he would need to see a “really significant move up in inflation that’s persistent, before we would even consider raising rates to address inflation concerns”.

For Mr Gundlach, whose firm manages $150bn in assets, the key word was “persistent.” He described it as “momentous” that Mr Powell was “now one of the leading inflation cheerleaders in the system. Higher inflation is now the goal of the Federal Reserve chairman. Can’t people see what a big shift this is?”

Worrying about inflation would certainly make a reversal from the past decade or so, when market watchers have been more bothered about deflation. Central banks have pulled out the stops to avoid sinking into the low-growth, low-inflation mire of “Japanification”.

The Fed cut interest rates three times last year, taking its target range for short-term borrowing costs to 1.5 per cent to 1.75 per cent.

The US central bank has a dual mandate of stable prices and maximum sustainable employment, “but unemployment is at a 50-year low, so why would they cut rates three times in three months?” said Richard Bernstein of Richard Bernstein Advisors. “It must be their concerns about deflation. Or put another way, not enough inflation.”

Mr Bernstein and Mr Gundlach note that Mr Powell’s push for more inflation is coinciding with moves by Donald Trump, US president, to relax fiscal constraints. The US government’s annual budget deficit swelled to $984bn in fiscal 2019, the most in seven years, as a drop in tax revenues coincided with higher military spending. The deficit is expected to top $1tn this year, theoretically feeding inflation.

At the same time, the effects of the long trade war with China may work their way through into higher consumer prices. The reason the US has not seen more inflation so far from tariffs is that companies are absorbing extra tariffs and accepting the squeeze on their margins. “That’s unlikely to continue in 2020,” said Mr Bernstein.

As a result, Mr Bernstein said his firm, which oversees $9.3bn of assets, has big positions in Treasury inflation-protected securities, or Tips. Such bonds, which pay investors a fixed interest rate as the bond’s par value adjusts with the inflation rate, are the “most straightforward way” to safeguard portfolios from inflation, said Kathy Jones, chief fixed income strategist for Charles Schwab.

Mr Gundlach also favours Tips as well as gold, commodities and emerging market assets, which tend to benefit from a weaker dollar, knocked down by inflation. He said a lower dollar was his highest-conviction trade for the year.

“We’ve suggested we are revisiting That ’70s Show, but not the late-’70s,” said Mr Bernstein, referring to the TV sitcom. “The inflation spirals of the ’70s didn’t start with everyone worried about inflation.”

Some parts of the market are catching on. Investors poured $208m into US-based Tips funds in the week ended January 15, according to Lipper data. That was the fifth consecutive week of inflows.

The softening dollar, meanwhile, is unleashing flows into commodity-linked funds, according to Jason Bloom, senior director of global ETF strategy and research at Invesco. He said such funds serve as a “powerful inflation hedge”.

Others are also piling into gold, the classic inflation hedge. Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund with $160bn in assets under management, sees gold prices, currently about $1,550 an ounce, eventually moving beyond $2,000 in an environment of lower rates and the Fed’s embrace of higher inflation.

The plaudits paid to former Fed chair Paul Volcker, who died late last year, focused on his victory over inflation in the 1970s.

His tenure demonstrated that inflation, once unleashed, is not easily tamed. It is understandable that investors are getting nervous about looser talk.

Persistent stimulus has kept global growth on track

Luckily, policymakers have believed their eyes rather than their theories

Martin Sandbu

Jerome Powell, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, left, and Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England (BOE), walk the grounds during the Jackson Hole economic symposium, sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, in Moran, Wyoming, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. Powell said the U.S. economy is in a favorable place but faces
Jay Powell, US Federal Reserve chairman, left, and Mark Carney, Bank of England governor, during the Jackson Hole summit in Moran, Wyoming, US, in August © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg


“The right remedy for the trade cycle is not to be found in abolishing booms and thus keeping us permanently in a semi-slump; but in abolishing slumps and thus keeping us permanently in a quasi-boom.”

Thus wrote John Maynard Keynes in 1936. More than 80 years on, his insistence that governments should continue to stimulate demand even in a prolonged upswing is newly relevant.

The long, slow recovery from the 2008 financial crisis shows how concerns that demand stimulus had exhausted its purpose and should be dialled back have been at best premature.

So what have we learnt? The lessons are remarkably similar in all advanced economies.

First, demand stimulus works.

That simple observation faces surprising resistance. But those who reject stimulus because the economy is still in the doldrums and inflation below target have it the wrong way round.

The fact is that a persistent expansionary policy — monetary stimulus everywhere, and fiscal stimulus in the US and a few other places — has kept growth on track well beyond the length of typical economic recoveries, and more stimulus has tended to go with more growth.

This has pushed unemployment down and created more jobs than observers thought was safely possible.

The “Phillips curve” that warns of inflation rising when labour markets become too tight has been quiescent.

Second, the longer demand keeps expanding, the greater the benefits for the least fortunate.

Those on the margins of the labour market are typically hurt first and worst in a downturn.

Conversely, only when the economy is kept in Keynes’s “quasi-boom” does it bring them towards acceptable levels of unemployment and wage growth.

In the US, according to researchers associated with the US Federal Reserve, “when the unemployment rate of whites increases by 1 percentage point, the unemployment rates of African Americans and Hispanics rise by well more than 1 percentage point, on average”.

In a recent paper, they found that when labour markets are particularly tight, this extra advantage for marginalised groups becomes even stronger.

In this sense, aggressive demand stimulus becomes more, not less, beneficial the longer it goes on.

We can see this phenomenon in many of the numbers and stories that describe the current state of our economies.

In the US and the UK, recent wage growth has been strongest for those paid the least.

In much of Europe, more of the population has a job than ever before.

Anecdotes abound about those previously given up as hopeless cases — former drug addicts and ex-prisoners, for example — now being not just hired, but trained to earn their keep by employers struggling to fill vacancies.

We are entitled to hope for a third lesson: that the historical pattern of productivity increasing in an upswing will also come through this time.

The reason for procyclical productivity is that robust demand growth creates incentives for businesses to do more with the same resources once it becomes difficult to expand by just hiring more.

We have been lucky in that many policymakers, especially central bankers, have been more willing to believe their eyes than their theories.

They have seen their policies working for longer than expected. They have noted the positive results — often highlighting the lack of inflationary pressures, the benefits of driving employment higher for those on the margins, and the possibility that supply capacity adjusts to satisfy demand pressures.

Because of this sensitivity to economic reality, the end of demand stimulus has been postponed many times.

Without it, more policymakers would have caused unnecessary slowdowns or downturns — as the eurozone did by tightening fiscal and monetary policy in 2011.

But avoiding unforced mistakes is not enough for sound policymaking. At a minimum, the experiences of the past decade call for a much more tolerant attitude to stimulus, whether from finance ministries or central banks.

Better still would be to incorporate this data formally in the formulation of policy targets — whether central banks’ mandates or rules for government budgets.

In practice, this could mean at least three things.

One would be to increase the burden of proof for scaling back stimulus on the grounds that the economy had reached full capacity.

That would avoid premature tightening — and the subsequent need to loosen.

Another would be to shift the focus from how the economy performs on average to how it performs for those on its margins.

All-economy (un)employment and inflation rates could be complemented by explicitly taking account of labour market and wage performance for vulnerable groups, trading off higher tolerance for overall inflation risk against greater expected benefits for those often left by the wayside.

Third, the effect of demand pressure on productivity growth could be explicitly included in forecasts.

Such steps could introduce an inflationary bias — but only if there was no risk of leaving unused economic capacity on the table.

But as the past few years have shown, that risk is real.

In the 1980s, economic theory concluded that responsible macroeconomic policy required policymakers who were more hawkish than voters.

Today, we need the opposite.

Was Killing Suleimani Justified?

At a press conference following the US drone strike that killed Iran's top military commander and several others, a senior State Department official burst out: “Jesus, do we have to explain why we do these things?” In fact, the international rule of law depends on it.

Peter Singer

singer179_ATTA KENAREAFP via Getty Images_iranprotestsoleimani


MELBOURNE – On January 3, the United States assassinated Qassem Suleimani, a top Iranian military commander, while he was leaving Baghdad International Airport in a car with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia. All the occupants of the car were killed.

The next day, at a special press briefing, an unnamed senior US State Department official said that Suleimani had been, for 20 years, “the major architect” of Iran’s terrorist attacks and had “killed 608 Americans in Iraq alone.” He added that Suleimani and Muhandis had been designated as terrorists by the United Nations, and that “both of these guys are the real deal in terms of bad guys.”

In 2003, US intelligence about Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction was completely wrong.

Those errors led to the invasion of Iraq, which cleared the way for the involvement of Iran and Suleimani in the country.

But let’s assume that this time the facts are as the US administration says they are.

Was the double assassination ethically defensible?

We can begin with the presumption that it is wrong to take human life.

President Donald Trump won’t deny that. A year ago, for example, he said: “I will always defend the first right in our Declaration of Independence, the right to life.” Trump was addressing his remarks to anti-abortion campaigners, but a right to life that applies to fetuses must also apply to older humans.

Is there an exception for “bad guys,” though?

Again, to keep the argument as straightforward as possible, let’s assume that the right to life protects only innocent humans. Who is to judge innocence? If we favor, as Americans often say they do, “a government of laws, not of men” there must be a legal process for deciding guilt. Since 2002, the International Criminal Court has sought to apply that process globally.

The ICC has had some notable successes in prosecuting perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the court’s scope is limited, and its reach has not been helped by the refusal of the US to join the 122 other countries that have accepted its jurisdiction.

In the wake of Suleimani’s assassination, Agnès Callamard, a Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that there is no oversight of targeted killings carried out beyond a country’s borders.

The Executive simply decides, without any legal due process or approval by any other branch of government, who is to be killed.

Accepting such an action makes it difficult to find any principled objection to similar killings planned or carried out by other countries. That includes the 2011 “Cafe Milano Plot,” supposedly masterminded by Suleimani himself, in which Iranian agents planned to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US while he lunched at a well-known restaurant in Washington, DC.

The only thing the US can say in defense of its assassinations is that it targets really bad guys, and the Saudi ambassador was not such a bad guy. That puts the rule of men above the rule of law.

The other justification that the Pentagon offered for the killing referred vaguely to “deterring future Iranian attack plans.”

As Callamard pointed out, this is not the same as the “imminent” attack required to justify acting in self-defense under international law. She also noted that others were killed in the attack – reportedly, a total of seven people died – and suggested that these other deaths were clearly illegal killings.

A careful reading of the transcript of the January 3 press briefing, held by three unidentified senior State Department officials, reveals the Trump administration’s real thinking.

In response to repeated questions about the justification of the assassination, one official compared it to the 1943 downing of a plane carrying Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was visiting Japanese troops in the Pacific – an incident that occurred in the midst of war, more than a year after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Another official said: “When I hear these questions it’s like you’re describing Belgium for the last 40 years. It’s the Iranian regime. We’ve got 40 years of acts of war that this regime has committed against countries in five continents.”

At one point, the official who had compared the assassination to the killing of Yamamoto burst out: “Jesus, do we have to explain why we do these things?”

If senior State Department officials believe that the US is engaged in a just war with Iran, as it was with Japan in 1943, the killing of Suleimani makes sense.

According to standard just war theory, you may kill your enemies whenever you have the chance to do so, as long as the importance of the target outweighs the so-called collateral damage of harm to innocents.

But the US is not at war with Iran.

The US Constitution gives Congress the sole authority to declare war, and it has never declared war on Iran. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi suggested that congressional leaders should have been consulted on the plan to kill Suleimani. If it was an act of war, she is right.

If, on the other hand, the killing was not an act of war, then, as an extrajudicial assassination that was not necessary to prevent an imminent attack, it was both illegal and unethical.

It risks severe negative consequences, not only in terms of escalating tit-for-tat retaliation in the Middle East, but also by contributing to a further decline in the international rule of law.


Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), Rethinking Life and Death, The Point of View of the Universe, co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, The Most Good You Can Do, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, One World Now, Ethics in the Real World, and Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, also with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek. In 2013, he was named the world's third "most influential contemporary thinker" by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.