“Of great concern is the failure of the United Nations, especially the Security Council, to condemn the event. The UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Agnés Callamard, did issue a report on July 6, 2020, that concluded that the targeted killing of such a prominent military leader as General Soleimani was not only a violation of international human rights law but ‘an act of war’ that violated Article 2(4) of the UN Charter,” Professor Richard A. Falk said in an interview with Tasnim.
Professor Richard Anderson Falk is the author or co-author of 20 books and the editor or co-editor of another 20 volumes. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed him to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967”.
The following is the full text of the Interview:
Tasnim: As you know, the US assassinated Lieutenant General Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi, and their companions by targeting their vehicles outside Baghdad International Airport on January 3. The act of terror was carried out under the direction of US President Donald Trump, with the Pentagon taking responsibility for the strike. How do you see the role of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and certain Arab states in the region in killing?
Falk: I claim no inside information on the undisclosed connections between the states mentioned in the question and the assassination of Lieut. General Soleimani, but offer some generalizations based on the public reactions of these governments to the event and their general approach to the confrontation with Iran. Two things are clear. First, Israel and Saudi Arabia officially welcomed the killing of Gen. Soleimani for reasons different than the United States, while disavowing any connection with the event; secondly, the Arab governments, and even some Israeli strategists, were wary of the possible consequences associated with feared Iranian retaliation and a regional escalation of tensions, urging de-escalation of the confrontational approach, being aware of (Persian) Gulf countries vulnerabilities to missile attack and giving their highest policy priority to regime security. With these considerations in mind, it makes sense that these governments all claimed that the US acted on its own, without prior consultation or encouragement. Some reports in the Arab media alleged that Qatar should be viewed as complicit because the drone responsible for this act of state terror was launched from US Udeid airbase in their country, but there was no indication of any advanced knowledge, much less participation, by Qatar before the attack was launched. Implicating Qatar should be viewed as an anti-Qatar smear that reflects the continuing hostility toward Qatar of the Saudi-led coalition of (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council members.
Of great concern is the failure of the United Nations, especially the Security Council, to condemn the event. The UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Agnés Callamard, did issue a report on July 6, 2020, that concluded that the targeted killing of such a prominent military leader as General Soleimani was not only a violation of international human rights law but ‘an act of war’ that violated Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. This important report does highlight the use of drones as creating a class of weaponry that erodes the distinction between war and peace and creates a threat to all countries and their population. The international tolerance of such state behavior is totally unacceptable, aggravated in this instance by being openly authorized by the head of state of a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council.
In short, for Israel the elimination of Iran’s most effective military commander was viewed as reducing the security threat posed by Iran’s regional influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, supposedly surrounding Israel with dangerous political forces, and hence eliminating the architect of Iran’s regional influence was viewed as a positive development from the perspective of Israeli security that deems itself as ‘at war’ with Iran. Yet even some Israeli strategic commentary at the time tended to worry about such a high-profile assassination being treated as an ‘act of war,’ intensifying risks of an unwanted all-out war and urged, contrary to Trump and Netanyahu, an offsetting concession to Iran. Some Israelis favored the immediate revival of the JCPOA deal relating to Iran’s nuclear program and even the elimination of sanctions.
For Saudi Arabia, in particular, although insisting that it had no role in the assassination viewed it partly through the perspective of offsetting Trump’s failure to respond to the effective September 2019 drone attack on the state-owned Aramco oil facilities in Abqaiq and Ehurais located in eastern Saudi Arabia. In this regard, the assassination was interpreted as somewhat offsetting Saudi criticisms of the Obama presidency’s moves toward normalization with Iran, as well as of Trump’s allegedly timid responses to prior provocations and some withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, which was viewed with alarm as the beginning of US military disengagement from the region.
Tasnim: General Soleimani is viewed by the world’s freedom-seeking people as the key figure in defeating Daesh, the world’s most notorious terrorist group, in the Middle East battles. What are your thoughts on Gen. Soleimani’s character and his role in fighting terrorism?
Falk: I am aware of the revered status of Gen. Soleimani for his various roles in defense of the Iranian Revolution and in opposition to the spread of US and Israeli influence in the region. He had that rare quality of being a military commander whose intelligence and political leadership were widely appreciated at all levels of Iranian society. Over the course of the last ten years, there have been many reports that he was being urged to become a presidential candidate in Iran. It is significant in my view that Gen. Soleimani was killed while on a diplomatic mission to reduce tensions with Saudi Arabia, and presumably the Sunni Arab world. There is no reason to believe that the assassination was timed to disrupt such a move, but its occurrence surely had the effect of intensifying regional tensions in a highly provocative, lawless manner that generated widespread calls for revenge and retaliation.
By and large, commentators on the assassination in the West, including critics of Trump’s presidency, viewed the event from a narrow American perspective. This meant highlighting Gen. Soleimani’s role both in Iraqi resistance to the American occupation and in giving overall help to the general opposition throughout the region to Washington’s strategic priorities. What was not stressed, and rarely even mentioned, was Gen. Soleimani’s extremely effective role not only in defeating Daesh (or ISIS) in Syria and Iraq but also in neutralizing the role of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Viewing Gen. Soleimani’s role more objectively, a larger geopolitical distortion is revealed. The United States’ real security concerns over the course of the past twenty years were associated with the kind of transnational extremist violence that culminated in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. It is only accepting Israel’s and the (Persian) Gulf monarchies’ regional priorities that made rational either the attack on Iraq in 2003 or the repeated efforts to destabilize Iran. To some extent, Obama did somewhat recognize that reaching an accommodation with Iran and continuing to support the national security of Israel were not necessarily contradictory. In contrast, Trump, whether wittingly or not, subordinates US national interests to the Israeli/(Persian)Gulf view of Middle East politics. At this point, with the prospect of Biden’s presidency, there is reason to be cautiously hopeful about the formulation of a policy for the Middle East that is more coherent, less Israeli driven, and more oriented toward achieving stability.
Tasnim: How do you see the future of the region after the assassination of Gen. Soleimani? Do you think that foreign troops including the US forces will be forced out of the region and Iraq at people’s will?
Falk: The turmoil throughout the region makes predictions hazardous. There are some encouraging indications that Biden seeks to revive JCPOA as soon as possible and seeks order and moderation throughout the Middle East. Such post-Trump modifications will not be undertaken without taking Israel’s views into account. Israel will certainly try its best to condition the renewal of American participation in JCPOA on imposing new, more stringently restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, as well as urging establishing a linkage between reducing sanctions and abandoning Iran’s diplomatic efforts to support self-determination and governmental legitimacy overall. Iran arguably supports self-determination and human rights in Israel/Palestine, Yemen, and Lebanon, and more controversially, governmental legitimacy and counterinsurgency in Syria.
The Arab acceptance of normalization agreements with Israel is not likely to be challenged by the Biden presidency, although brought about by American inducements, including advanced weaponry and a greater commitment of the US to extend its security protection beyond Israel. In this regard, should a second Arab Spring occur in (Persian) Gulf countries or Egypt, it is likely that Washington will more overtly side with the established order, no matter how repressive.
Of relevance as well is whether China and Russia will play more active diplomatic roles in the region, either seeking alignment or offering an alternative to the American imperial presence. Such speculation depends in part on whether the US adopts confrontational approaches to Russia in relation to Ukraine and Crimea and to China with respect to international trade relations and tensions in the South China Sea. Unless the US disengages from its reliance on global militarism as the basis of its foreign policy, which seems highly unlikely, there are almost certain to be troubled waters in many parts of the world, including the Middle East.
It is finally possible that energy geopolitics will also exert an influence over how relations with Iran evolve. It seems to serve OPEC’s interest to restrict Iran’s energy export markets, but if European or Asian demands rise, the reintegration of Iran in the world economy is like to receive strong backing that could change the balance in the Middle East.