I was in Rome on Dec. 18, 2019 when the US House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump and in the United States on January 3, 2020, when he ordered a drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. The second incident may or may not be related to the first, as in the Wag the Dog theory, but no European or American politician or journalist of consequence has seriously tried connecting the two.
The impeachment effort had been stalled in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi held on to the complaint, instead of immediately sending it to the Senate, where it might be defeated; there seemed to be no apparent reason why Trump would have to embark on a risky foreign adventure to divert attention from an impeachment proceeding that was likely to fail. Therefore the assassination of the Iranian commander, which brought out multitudes of Iranian mourners into the streets of Iran and provoked calls for revenge against America and Americans, has to be examined on its own merits.
The assassination has shifted the focus of world attention from the South China Sea to the Middle East. Previous to this, the running concern of international politicians and political analysts, as reflected on Youtube, was predominantly China: Are the US and the Asian giant destined for war, as Harvard professor Graham Allison asks in his book of the same title; has China begun to rule the world as the author Martin Jacques suggests; has a new Cold War taken over Trump’s trade war, as the historian Niall Ferguson argues.
The assassination of an important Iranian commander upon the orders of the US president tends to rewrite the rules of just war and of peaceful intercourse. It makes the world a much more dangerous place. Let us not forget the US and Iran are not countries at war. They have some serious disagreements: for one, they are on different sides in Syria, but they are potential partners for peace in a nuclear non-proliferation deal which several important countries are trying to push. Surprise therefore cannot be avoided when one side decides to take out an important military target within the jurisdiction of the other, as though by legal right.
Until his assassination, Soleimani was not known to most of the outside world. He was no Osama bin Laden, the founder of the pan-Islamic militant al Qaeda organization, who was the object of an international manhunt from the time his terrorist group struck at the New York twin towers and the Pentagon building near Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001; rejoicing could not be contained after his killing by US Navy SEALs in a residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011. A few days afterward, the Philippine government was honored to receive the port call in Manila of the USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier from which Osama’s body had been lowered into the Indian Ocean.
Trump justified Soleimani’s assassination by saying the general was planning massive attacks on the US, and that he had him terminated in order to stop a war, not to start one. His Democrat-critics and many others are not completely at ease with this statement. There has been, at best, a failure of information. The world never got to know who Soleimani really was.
A cursory look at Wikipedia tells us the general began his military career in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, giving him command of the 41st Division. He took control of Iran’s extraterritorial military operations, and extended military assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In 2012, he provided military assistance to Bashar al Assad during the Syrian civil war, and helped to plan Russia’s military intervention in the same war. He oversaw Kurdish and Shia forces in Iraq, and assisted the Iraq forces in their advance against ISIS in 2014-15.
Despite his awesome powers and responsibilities, he kept a very low profile, and was said to be enormously popular with the Iranians. But he was personally sanctioned by the United Nations and the European Union, and designated as a terrorist by the US. At the height of the US Global War on Terror, there were proposals for the US forces to take him out, but these were vetoed by both President Bush and President Obama for fear of igniting wider tensions.
Had Iran intended to launch any massive attack on the US before Soleimani’s death, his assassination should have probably facilitated it. But it did not. In fact, Trump issued the bigger threat by warning of unimagined consequences should Iran try to retaliate. An Iraqi Parliament non-binding resolution calling on the government to expel US forces from Iraq has been met with the threat of severe economic sanctions from Trump, and has remained stillborn. Iran fired 22 missiles on two US military bases in Iraq, without inflicting any casualties, and while saying it did not want war with the US. With this symbolic act of reprisal, Trump said Iran was standing down, and declared the US would embrace peace with those who want it.
With the two countries stepping back from the brink of war, we can once again breathe a sigh of relief. The only group of people who would have to try to reinsert their lives in peace would be the Overseas Filipino Workers who had been mandatorily repatriated from Iraq. As happened in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the Soviet warships turned back to prevent a nuclear confrontation with the US, the right of the mighty to dictate the terms of peace has prevailed. If the Iran-US situation continues to stabilize, we can perhaps go back to watching, without any distraction, what ultimately happens in the Spratlys.