EU Affairs Security & Defence

Killing of Soleimani: Not in the Name of Europe

The targeted killing of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani is highly questionable under international law and strategically counterproductive. Negative consequences for the security of Europe and the cohesion within NATO are imminent.

What the killing of the Iranian General Soleimani means from a European perspective

The targeted killing of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani is highly questionable under international law and strategically counterproductive. Negative consequences for the security of Europe and the cohesion within NATO are imminent.

From a European perspective, the American attack on the Iranian top military officer Qasem Soleimani and the accelerated escalation of the conflict between the USA and Iran that accompanied it, came completely unexpected.

It is true that during 2019 both sides had moved further and further away from possible negotiations. Iran demonstrated its threatening potential to the West by attacking tankers in the Persian Gulf, shooting down US drones, setting fire to the world’s largest oil refinery in Saudi Arabia and gradually suspending its obligations under the nuclear deal; and the government of US President Donald Trump, in turn, was strangling the Iranian economy with an increasingly comprehensive sanctions regime after unilaterally annulling the nuclear agreement with Tehran. The Member States of the European Union tried to mediate diplomatically, but were unable to successfully bring their economic weight to bear in the face of the stifling American sanctions.

As the escalation spiral spun, however, it seemed that Washington and Tehran were taking great care to ensure that the consequences of their actions remained reversible in the context of an undeclared war. Observers therefore suspected that both sides wanted to avoid a worsening of the conflict and build up negotiating mass for future talks. This hope was supported by the fact that important elections are due in both countries in 2020. Neither Donald Trump nor the “reformers” around Iranian President Hassan Rohani should expect to benefit politically from a military conflict.

However, the deadly missile attack on General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Al-Quds Brigades, breaks with the previous pattern. It is irreversible and disappoints all hopes of negotiations in the foreseeable future. This should also seal the definitive end of the nuclear agreement. This was one of the most important achievements of European diplomacy and an effective insurance against an Iranian bomb, as Iran fulfilled all its obligations under the agreement until the beginning of last year.

Because of its geographical location, Europe is more exposed to the consequences of further escalation than the United States. This would be the case if Iran were to fully reactivate its nuclear and missile programmes or if Iraq were to sink back into state disintegration and civil war. Europe would be directly confronted with the consequences, whether through new military threat scenarios or through another refugee crisis.

General Soleimani was the leading head of Iran’s military engagement in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. He was responsible for building and supporting Shiite militias that fought for Iran’s influence in the civil wars of these countries. That his divisive influence was fatal for many people and incendiary for the region is undisputed. However, the decision to kill him deliberately is hardly compatible with international law and in many ways politically and strategically counterproductive.

In the past, Washington has repeatedly relied on the killing of leaders. This so-called “kingpin strategy” was first used in the fight against drug cartels in Colombia, and later in the media-effective killing of terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Under international law, targeted attacks on individuals can hardly be justified unless they take place in connection with direct combat operations. In the case of Soleimani, there is no concrete evidence of this to date. Moreover, he was not the leader of a drug cartel, but the representative of a sovereign state with which the USA is not officially at war.

It is precisely at times like these, when it is necessary to restrict and condemn the military efforts of Russia, China, but also Iran, with reference to international law, that members of the Western community of states should not assert their interests with the law of the strongest.

Targeted killings can be sold domestically and in the media as spectacular evidence of strength and victory. Strategically, however, they often prove to be counterproductive. New leaders are usually already available in the organisational hierarchy, and the killing of the former leader by the enemy can be used propagandistically to radicalise and recruit new fighters.

Soleimani has already been replaced as commander of the Quds brigades. His killing has fuelled anti-American and anti-Western resentment in both Iran and Iraq. The Iraqi parliament’s decision to no longer host foreign soldiers in its country indicates just that – with consequences for American soldiers, but also for soldiers in the German Bundeswehr and other European armed forces.

In the end, the killing of Soleimani could lead to Iraq being driven even further into the arms of Iran and the influence of the West in Iraq being reduced to almost zero. This would be the opposite of what the US administration is likely to intend.

The surprise attack on the Iranian general also adds fuel to French President Emmanuel Macron’s criticism of NATO’s cohesion. He had complained that there was a lack of mutual agreement and a common political strategy within the transatlantic alliance.

Accordingly, Macron and his German and British counterparts found themselves in a communication dilemma after the military action. On the one hand, they did not want to alienate the important ally, the United States, through open criticism, and on the other hand, they did not want to approve of the targeted killing. So they called on both sides to “extreme responsibility and restraint”. At least the French deputy foreign minister Amélie de Montchalin (La République En Marche) was clearer, stating: “We are waking up in a more dangerous world”.

President Trump has knocked another major trust block out of the wall of the transatlantic building. With a view to NATO’s mission to combat the IS, defence policy planners in Paris, London and Berlin will have to ask themselves how they are going to use their soldiers responsibly when their security depends on an Ally with a different or possibly no strategic vision and who does not coordinate its plans within the Alliance. Against this background, the suspension of the Bundeswehr training mission in Iraq is certainly the right decision.



Sebastian Vagt heads the Expert Hub for Security Policy at FNF Europe.