How Soleimani’s Assassination Violates International Law and Puts Peace Further Out of Reach

January 6, 2020

Phyllis Bennis says Congress must stop Trump from taking the U.S. to war without any justification or provocation.

Phyllis Bennis says Congress must stop Trump from taking the U.S. to war without any justification or provocation.


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Story Transcript

DONALD TRUMP: We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.

MARC STEINER: Orwellian speak dominates our body politic. Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.

We continue our coverage today of the escalation by the United States in Iraq; and with Iran, a potential war. The issues we face are both complex and straightforward. Trump’s actions, that from all reports were done without agreement or a major discussion with his own national security personnel, have heightened the prospects of a wider war in the Middle East. He told Israel and Saudi Arabia–but not the U.S.’s alleged ally, Iraq–that he was going to carry out an assassination or their soil. A divided Iraq and its parliament have asked the United States to leave Iraq. Tens of thousands of protestors that crossed every ethnic line exploded across Iraq before the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, demanding that both United States and Iran leave Iraq and the Iraqi government step down.

Now Trump has even declared he will break international law and bomb cultural sites if Iran retaliates in any way for the assassination. The roots of this as our guest has written are not just about this week’s events. But go back to Trump’s dismantling of the nuclear agreement with Iran in May 2018 and even further with the beginning of the invasion of Iraq 2003 or even further in the 1950s where the U.S. ouster of Mosaddegh, Iran’s elected leader.

But let me stop here and welcome Phyllis Bennis, who is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies; serves on the board of Jewish Voices for Peace. And her most recent books include Understanding the Palestinian Israeli Conflict and Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror. And her latest piece for The Nation magazine: Fascination with Soleimani Escalates the Threat of a War. And good to have you with us, Phyllis. Welcome.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Great to be back with you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: One day we’ll have a conversation when we’re not under some threat of war. Maybe. But this particular move is probably one of the frightening moves in this entire administration. So let’s start there.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It was indeed this notion that Trump claimed at his press conference that he acted to stop a war is completely a reversal of the reality. This act, this single act–the assassination of this particular individual, General Qasem Soleimani–was perhaps the most provocative, reckless move he could have made in relationship to Iran. This is somebody who was not just the top general for Iran’s–what’s known as the Quds Force, the Jerusalem force. That was mainly the Iranian military support for a number of militias in a variety of countries around the region, but he was also a very influential, very popular political leader.

In fact, in a recent poll a few months back conducted by the University of Maryland, inside Iran it turned out that he was, by a substantial margin, the most popular political leader in the country. So the notion that he could be assassinated without any consequence, that somehow this would make the United States safer, that this would make U.S. troops throughout the region safer, is a complete reversal of the reality. There is now an incredibly tense escalation process underway which could really lead to full-scale war there.

MARC STEINER: So let me come back to Trump here one more time to talk about what the response might be in our own country here. This is Trump on Friday at his press conference.

DONALED TRUMP: Soleimani made the death of innocent people, his sick passion contributing to terrorist plots as far away as New Delhi and London. We take comfort in knowing that his reign of terror is over. We do not seek regime change. However, the Iranian regime’s aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors, must end. And it must end now. The world is a safer place without these monsters.

MARC STEINER: So given the divided nature of our own country, Phyllis, I’m curious how you all were talking about what the political response to all this is because it’s complex. You see how the Democrats are kind of backpedaling and afraid to say anything that might look like Soleimani is a nice guy or whatever; frightened to kind of take that on a bit. So what should the political response be and what do you see happening?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: The political response has to come from the Congress to reclaim our constitution. The constitution is vague about all kinds of things, but it’s very clear about at least one thing, which is that only Congress has the right to declare war. This war that is threatening right now was not declared by Congress. There was no imminent threat. Despite these claims, we have seen no evidence that there was an imminent threat even being considered or talked about. And when General Soleimani arrived in Baghdad, reportedly on a commercial flight going through regular passport control, he wasn’t coming in covertly. It really begs the question whether he was in fact there for anything other than diplomatic potential conversations, which is what the Iraqi prime minister reported to the Iraqi parliament. The prime minister said that.

Soleimani was actually coming to Baghdad to discuss with him, the prime minister, an answer from Iran to a message that the Iraqi prime minister had relayed to Iran from Saudi Arabia. Which if true… and we don’t know if this is true, this is what the Iraqi prime minister says. If it’s true, it means that there was the possibility of a diplomatic solution being discussed between the longstanding competitors, challengers in the region–Iran and Saudi Arabia–with the Iraqi leader as the go-between; if that were true.

This is assassination not only represents violation of international law, a violation of U.S. law and immoral assassination that is specifically prohibited by a U.S. executive order that goes back to the 1970s, but it also undermined the possibility of averting continuing escalating tensions between the longstanding competitors Iran and Saudi Arabia.  We don’t know if any of that is yet going to be proven, if any of that is true, but the notion that this is the story that’s being put forward by the Iraqi prime minister, a longstanding supporter of the United States, sort of goes to say that the claim that this was designed to avert a war is simply nowhere near reality.

MARC STEINER: Assume that it’s true for a moment; it would be something that the intelligence forces in the United States would have known about, something Trump should have known about it if in fact it was taking place. I mean, being unfathomable to believe that otherwise.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yes and no. The U.S. does have very good intelligence in the region. It doesn’t have very good intelligence in Iran. It does have very good intelligence in Saudi Arabia. The Israelis are known to have much better intelligence in Iran than the United States does. Whether they knew about it and didn’t share the information, we don’t know. There’s a lot of unknowns here. There’s a lot of unknowns. And even the claim by the Iraqi prime minister has to be taken with a very cautious understanding that he’s trying to survive politically at a moment when his government has been under enormous pressure to step down from these, these protests that have raged across Iraq, which are now being transformed into a campaign against the United States.

The parliament has now asked the United States to remove all its 5000 troops. So there’s a huge complication underway and who knew what… When we certainly don’t know yet. We won’t know that for quite some time. It is possible that the U.S. knew about this and that it had something to do with the timing because perhaps someone in the Trump administration did not want to see a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We don’t know. We simply don’t know. What we do know is that this was a reckless act and assassination that violated all kinds of international and domestic laws and that has made everything in that tense environment far worse, not better.

MARC STEINER: And from what I’ve read and talked to folks that the… What happened inside the parliament was also divided in Iraq for clear political reasons, but if this pushes ahead and Iraq asks the United States to leave even force them to leave, that sets up a whole other set of issues. I between Iraq, the United States and in Syria and Iran, I mean this is, it expands the potential conflict. It would seem to me,

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It absolutely does. It makes the conflict, again, an absolutely regional conflict. It raises the question of ISIS, which exists in small in Iraq as well as in Syria and elsewhere. It raises the question of would the United States abide by a decision of the Iraqi parliament, which has passed the resolution saying we want the all the U.S. troops out, but it has not yet been signed off by the prime minister. We don’t know how that’s going to play out if it does. Will the U.S. agree will or will they simply say, we’re going to stay? Trump has already threatened that if the Iraqis asked the U.S. to leave, that he will demand that they pay the billions of dollars to build the U.S. bases in Iraq that were built during the U.S. occupation of the country in the early years of the Iraq war. If they refuse to do that, what then he says they will impose sanctions that will be far worse than the crippling sanctions that he is imposed on Iran.

So we’re looking again at a repeat of the years of sanctions against Iraq. Which if you remember, Marc, in the years between the first and second U.S. wars against Iraq–that is between 1991 and 2003–during those 12 years of absolutely devastating and sanctions that shredded the social fabric of the country, 500,000 children under the age of five were killed by U.S. sanctions. That was the moment when Madeline Albright, the secretary of state to Bill Clinton, said in 1998: “We think the price is worth it.” The price of 500,000 Iraqi children’s lives was somehow worth it to impose those sanctions. Are we looking at that being repeated?

MARC STEINER: I remember that all too well. And it also geopolitically pushes Iran and Iraq closely together, even though it seems like the majority of Iraqis were in the streets. What? Neither the United States nor Iran to be involved in Roth. They want their own nation back. So, that’s also a further complication to this. So, and if you read this tweet that Trump did, this is good here before we conclude because it’s pretty stunning. His tweet on the kind of bombings that would take, he would allow a to take place on what he would go after. So he, he wrote this tweet targeted 52 Iranian sites presenting the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many, many years ago. Some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture and those targets and Iran itself will be hit very fast and very hard in calves. The U.S. wants no more threats. So he’s also talking about bombing cultural sites.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: He’s talking about planning a war crime and announcing to the world we are going to commit 52 war crimes. It is a specific war crime in violation of the Geneva conventions in violation of a specific UN security council resolution that the United States signed off on and it’s a specific part of the Pentagon’s own laws of war manual that attacking a cultural site is a specific crime of war and here is the president of the United States announcing to the world that our intention, if Iran dares to retaliate for our illegal assassination of its second most influential leader that our response will be to commit 52 war crimes. It’s an unbelievable thing and I don’t know whether Congress is going to take this one up.

We are at a moment when there are people in Congress, and it’s very important to recognize this, are already pushing for a war powers resolution that would restrict the president’s ability to maintain the new forces. He has sent 4000 new troops had been sent in the last 48 hours or so to the region targeting Iran and the resolution is pending in both the Senate and being introduced in the house by jointly by Barbara Lee and Ilhan Omar to parallel a house resolution, a house version of the same resolution that would say that within 30 days the president must have withdrawn all of those additional troops from Iraq, from the region and that there will be no more military action against Iran without congressional approval. If that passes, it would set up an immediate conflict between the two branches of government and how that would be resolved.

We don’t know would the Trump administration abide by the constitutional requirement that it listened to Congress. Would it abide by the terms of the war powers act that explicitly says that if there are troops fighting anywhere in the world where there has not been a declaration of war or a specific authorization by Congress, the Congress can order the president to withdraw those forces. It’s never been used. It’s never been attempted. Would this president go along with Congress? We don’t know, but it is very, very important that people demand of their members of Congress to pass these two bills in the house and in the Senate so that we can begin that process of holding this president accountable.

MARC STEINER: So let’s conclude with this: I think what you just talked about, in coupling that with… Clearly, Iran is pulling out of the nuclear deal completely though they’ve made some equivocations. But the question becomes in our own country here in the United States: what is our response to this? This is, again, our divided political world in this country–and it’s intense–that we were going through in America right now. So what is our response? How do Americans respond to this growing sense of war?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Let me just say one thing first. It’s very important to recognize that Iran is pulling out, as you say, of a number of the components, the key components of the nuclear deal. However, it is allowing to remain the United nations inspectors throughout its set of nuclear facilities. That’s crucially important because it means that if Iran intended some point in the future to do what they have not ever done, which is to move towards building a nuclear weapon, those inspectors would be on the ground and able to see it. They have very specifically not demanded that those inspectors leave, which is their right to do. They have not done it. So that’s important to keep in mind. In terms of the U.S. response, the question is going to come back to Congress. Will people take up the demand that members of Congress hold up their constitutional duty to control the money, control our tax dollars?

We already are spending 53 cents out of every discretionary federal dollar directly on the military. Will we demand that Congress prevent this president from taking us to war without any discussion, without any agreement, and for no reason? There is no threat from Iran against the United States. This claim from the vice president that not just Iran, but Soleimani in particular was somehow involved in 9/11 and with Osama bin Laden; anyone who knows anything about those incidents, about those relationships, those organizations know that the only ties between Iran government and Al-Qaida was one of unrelenting hostility both at a religious level, at a sectarian level, at a national level, and at a political level. There was no connection between them. So they’re just creating lies here.

This is very much like what we saw with the Iraq war and the question is will we remember we just saw a month ago the so-called Afghanistan papers that are now proving what many of us knew all along that our political leaders, our military leaders are lying to us knowingly and directly and hoping we won’t remember, hoping we won’t notice. Well, we have noticed. And now the Washington Post noticed. Just as the New York Times did with Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, the Post noticed with the Afghanistan Papers. We have noticed. We should stop listening to all those people who lied through the Afghanistan war and believe somehow that they’re going to now be telling the truth about a war in Iran.

So that’s one of the things we should be looking at, is who are we listening to on television? Who are we listening to in the newspapers? We should be focusing on Congress to say there must be an immediate vote on a war powers act aimed at holding the president accountable and preventing any further escalation that could lead to an absolutely catastrophic war.

MARC STEINER: Well, Phyllis Bennis, it’s always great to talk with you and for our viewers to hear what you have to say as we struggled with what to do next and how we stand up against this. Thank you so much for your work and thanks for taking your time today at The Real News.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: Always a pleasure. And we will be covering this every day and keep pushing on other things we know and what we want to find out. We’ll be bringing you voices from inside of Iraq, to folks who are involved, and the Iranian American community, and more. So stay with us for all of these reports we’ll be doing here at The Real News. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Let us know what you think. And take care.