Last week Major General Qasem Soleimani was killed in Iraq by the United States. He was a military officer assigned to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the commander of the Quds Force. He was the Iranian military leader responsible for overseas Iranian operations and clandestine missions. He was the leader of a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. Some believe he was a more serious and dangerous terrorist leader than Bin Laden (Al Qaeda) or Baghdadi (ISIS).

There is currently much debate over the reason for his death and how it should be classified, and of course what comes next between Iran and the U.S. Here I will narrowly focus on how this death should be classified. I am not a legal scholar, so I want to approach this as a military officer who traveled across a large combat zone and into a few dangerous countries with 2-star, 3-star, and 4-star generals.

There are two major lines of thought on Soleimani’s death. Some are calling it an assassination, because America does not have a formal declaration of war against Iran and/or because he was a senior military leader. Others are calling it a military strike on a military target in a combat zone, because Iran has been waging a war against American targets for many years and this man was the military leader conducting those attacks.

How Have We Historically Treated Generals Who Were Killed?

For those who haven’t Googled it yet, I would ask you to look up a few names of other generals who have been killed to determine if the press, pundits, and lawyers called their deaths an assassination. Start with Maj. Gen. Harold Greene in 2017 in Afghanistan. He was killed while training Afghan security forces. Maj. Gen. Greene was not alone in this attack; also wounded were an Afghan and German brigadier general. Look up Brig. Gen. William Darby, a WWII leader of one of the elite commando forces that so many nations try to emulate today. Darby’s force would provide the lineage to the modern commando forces that have faced off with General Soleimani’s men in Iraq and elsewhere. Look up Maj. Gen. Keith Ware, to see if his death is called an assassination. He was a Medal of Honor recipient in WWII and was killed in Vietnam. Locate news stories about Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq’s death in Afghanistan, and the other general who was also with him during the attack.

In a few instances, the deaths of generals on battlefields have been called assassinations, but in most cases, they are referred to as dying from an enemy attack. The enemy attacking the general does not need to have a formal declaration of war against the nation of the general they are killing to make it a military or combatant attack on the general officer. In Soleimani’s case, the U.S. does not have a declaration of war with Iran, but they do have a U.S. Congress authorization to use military force (AUMF) against many terrorists in numerous combat zones globally. Additionally, a U.S. president has the authority to protect Americans from enemy attack. There were more attacks on Americans being plotted by Soleimani at the time of his death.

Soleimani likewise didn’t attack Americans because he had an official declaration of war between Iran and the U.S., but he was “at war” with the U.S., and killed hundreds of U.S. service members in military attacks in Iraq. Soleimani-led attacks on U.S. and U.S.-Allied forces in Iraq resulted in at least 600 killed and thousands more permanently wounded and injured. None of those military members deaths have been classified as assassinations at the hands of Iran, that I am aware of.

Soleimani traveled into a combat zone, in a careless manner, with poor security, and was killed in a military strike. It does not matter that he was loosely allied with the U.S. to fight the ISIS scourge that had taken over large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Almost every nation has made a short or long-term alliance with the enemy of their enemy; in this case it did not make Iran and the U.S. friends.

Do not forget that the Iranian regime and Soleimani are the ones that propped up the alleged war criminal Assad regime in Syria in the brutal civil war that allowed ISIS to blossom in the first place. The Iranian backed Syrian civil war has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and the mass refugee status of over 5 million people spread around the globe right now.

Soleimani organized assassinations of diplomats and others globally. His forces led attacks that captured and executed U.S. personnel in Iraq. His forces provided weapons and training to various designated terrorists groups in the Middle East. This was a military officer who understood the risk of death. In response to Soleimani’s terrorism and violence, over recent years and even during the Trump administration, the U.S. has surprisingly offered to hold talks with Iran about moving towards more normalized relations. Iran has said no to those talks, unless they are allowed to negotiate Iranian ability to develop nuclear weapons. Most assess the Iranian regime and many in the U.S. government don’t actually want to normalize relations, but that most of their citizens do.

Military Duty is Risky

I was with a major general at the embassy in Kabul when it came under rocket attack and we risked daily IED attacks as we traveled by road for 300 straight days. I moved around Colombia’s capital with a lieutenant general under heavy guard due to kidnapping risks. I travelled into Helmand 2 days after some of the heaviest fighting there in 2009 with a 4-star general as we met with exhausted and bloodied British soldiers. Had any of these generals been killed on these missions, it would not have likely been called an assassination. None of these men were designated as terrorists, and all of them knew the risks associated with being a military leader in a combat zone or a dangerous nation.

As for Maj. Gen. Soleimani…it was a good strike, not an assassination. Generals die in combat zones, or on dangerous missions, just like every other member of the military. The world is a better place with one less terrorist mastermind who happened to be an Iranian major general. I do not believe the White House seeks a war with Iran; I do believe they sent a signal to terrorist leaders and terrorism supporters (both military and civilian) that the rules have changed.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He serves on the Board of Directors for 2 non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.