This post is co-written with Anh Le (University of Manchester)

The killing of General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds force, has, once again, ignited the debate surrounding the practice of targeted killing. Much has been said about the legality and prudence of this strike. In this post, we assess the morality of this strike. From an ethical perspective, there are two paradigms that can justify the state’s killing of individuals: just war and law enforcement (there is, in addition, the emerging framework of jus ad vim but we’ll stick with the two familiar paradigms in this post). Any justified state-sanctioned killings have to fall within the purview of these two paradigms. If a particular act of killing fails to meet the rigorous demands of both paradigms, then such killing is unjust. In this post, we will analyse both possible justifications.

Just War

In order to justify a targeted killing like this one – i.e. one that did not take place during a declared war – we need to consider the requirements for the legitimate resort to force. In other words, it needs to meet the requirements of jus ad bellum: just cause, right intention, legitimate authority, last resort, proportionality, and likelihood of success. In addition, the just war paradigm raises questions about discrimination.

Some of these requirements do not raise serious issues. For instance, discrimination requires that only military targets are targeted directly and Soleimani was undoubtedly a potentially legitimate target for lethal force. We can also, for the sake of argument, grant that the strike was conducted with an acceptable intention (e.g. to protect US lives) and that it was conducted by a legitimate authority.

However, it turns out to be very difficult to argue that the strike met any of the other requirements. I will here highlight some of the most salient considerations.

Perhaps most importantly, it seems unlikely that there was a just cause for the strike. Just war theory allows only a very limited number of just causes. Resort to force is only legitimate if it is a response to aggression, either to your country, to an ally, or to a population within a third country who cannot defend themselves (as in humanitarian intervention). The just war paradigm may permit pre-emptive resort to force but, crucially, it does not permit preventive force. In order for an attack to be considered pre-emptive rather than preventive, the threat it is responding to needs to be both imminent and reasonably certain. Although under President Obama the requirement of imminence has been effectively done away with in the context of the war on terror, it is crucial from a just war perspective. The jus ad bellum requirements aren’t discrete requirements: An attack to prevent a non-imminent threat is unlikely to meet most of the other ad bellum requirements. If an attack is not imminent, there are likely to be many less-lethal ways in which the attack could be prevented. And because it’s difficult to assess the kind of harm an attack will do so far in advance, it is going to be very difficult to make a convincing case that resort to lethal force will be proportionate.

The US government has claimed that the decision to attack Soleimani was motivated by the desire to prevent future attacks on US citizens, as well as to avenge previous attacks. The latter justification is inadmissible from a just war perspective, which does not allow revenge as a just cause. The former justification could be admissible as a just cause, if the US were responding to an imminent threat. It’s not clear whether this is the case, and it’s not likely we will find out.

So it is rather difficult to assess whether there was a just cause for the strike, though it doesn’t seem particularly promising.

When considering the other requirements, it looks even less promising. The proportionality requirement says that the harm done by an attack must not exceed the harm averted. Again, it’s difficult to assess exactly what kind of threat Soleimani posed. However, the harm caused by the strike is already significant. Iran has announced it will no longer abide by the 2015 nuclear deal, and the US has told its citizens to leave Iraq because of the increased threat-level. Iraq’s demand that the US withdraw all troops is likely to seriously jeopardize the ongoing fight against ISIS. These responses are not, crucially, unforeseeable, which means that they should have been taken into account when considering the proportionality of the attack. Thus it seems unlikely that the strike meets the requirement of proportionality.

The requirement of likelihood of success is also important. It is particularly relevant if we view this strike as aiming to deter future attacks by Iran. Whether so-called decapitation strikes are effective is difficult to assess. Some research suggests they are not, whereas other research suggests that, at least against (relatively poorly organized) insurgencies, they can be effective. But, of course, Iran is a well-organized state and given Soleimani’s important position it is unlikely that no plans were made to deal with his death or incapacitation. It seems to me that, at the time of ordering the strike, optimism about the deterrent effect of this strike would have been unwarranted. (This assumes the US’ intentions were purely concerned with deterrence. A less charitable reading of the situation suggests that the strike may have been intended as a provocation).

In summary, using the just war paradigm, it seems unlikely that the strike was legitimate even if we make a number of charitable assumptions.

Law Enforcement

As Sara rightly argues, the killing of general Soleimani was unjust by just war standard. In the remainder of this post, I conceptualise the strike as a law enforcement operation and assess whether it meets this threshold.

Now the law enforcement paradigm is arguably the stricter of the two. It does permit the use of deadly force (including in response to past wrongdoing, unlike the just war paradigm), but only in tightly circumscribed situations. Generally speaking, this is when the suspected criminal poses an immediate threat to the pursuing officers (self-defence) or to surrounding innocent civilians (societal defence). A fleeing suspect may also be killed if they’re particularly dangerous and there are reasons to believe that they would pose further serious threats to others. The law enforcement regime is restrictive on the use of deadly force because it demands due process. This means that, whenever possible, a suspect is to be arrested, given a fair trial with access to an attorney and, only once they’re found guilty, given the appropriate sentence. This sentence could be capital punishment (I do not wish to get into the ethics of capital punishment in this post). The state can only kill an individual after the requirements of due process have been met.

Does the killing of Soleimani fit the law enforcement paradigm? By most plausible accounts, Soleimani didn’t pose an ongoing or imminent threat at the time he was targeted and killed. He had just landed in Baghdad with his entourage when he was killed alongside the commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF). The immediate response from US officials was that Soleimani was about to wage an imminent and ‘significant campaign of violence’ on US personnel in the region. This could have been believable. Soleimani’s job had been to organise military and financial support for various state, non-state and sub-state actors in the region. At times (e.g. the civil war in Syria, Houthi rebels in Yemen, US occupation in Iraq, etc.), the support provided by Soleimani’s influential Quds Force had inflicted heavy damages on US interests in the region. But the point remains that at the time of his death, Soleimani didn’t pose an imminent threat to American lives. Most importantly, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has shifted the rationale for killing Soleimani to one of retributive/punitive: ‘we know what happened at the end of last year in December. If you’re looking for imminence, look no further than the days that led up to the strike’.

From a law enforcement perspective, Soleimani’s killing was tantamount to extra-judicial killing. It might very well be the case that Soleimani’s sentence should be capital punishment. But this sentence can only be meted out by a judge in the court of law. Soleimani would be afforded his right to a fair trial and legal representatives as per the requirements of due process. By killing him with a Reaper drone, the US deprived him of the due process to which he was entitled.

We are abhorred (and rightly so) at the thought of the state summarily executing those they deem guilty without any legal procedures. If the killing of Soleimani was a law enforcement operation then we should feel the same way.

Sara Van Goozen

I am an associate lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York. My research interests are in global ethics, just war theory and global justice. My book “Distributing the Harm of Just Wars” is out soon with Routledge.