The Shia Muslims are estimated to account for only between 10-15 per cent of the global Muslim community. They are and have always been a persecuted minority within the wider Muslim world. While there is no doubt that atrocities have been committed by both sides during this sectarian struggle, the Shia perceive themselves as besieged and fighting an existential conflict. Since 1979, Iran has seen itself, correctly, as the only major Shia power.
Much of Iran’s post-revolution foreign policy has centered on three major axes — pushing back against the American “imperialist” influence in the Middle East, supporting the Palestinian cause against Israel, and protecting the Shia minority wherever they may be found. Most of the links that the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) maintains with militia groups in places like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Kurdistan, Iraq and Yemen — as well as political actors in places like Bahrain — are designed to aid one of these axes of foreign policy.
Iran sees American interference as meddlesome and consistently disadvantageous to poor and developing countries and it fully buys into the leftist narrative of a 20th century replete with examples of American neo-imperialism. This is why Iran feels justified in zealously preventing its own return to the America-dominated era of the Shah of Persia as well as combating American influence anywhere in the region.
On the Palestinian question, it seems to be clear: Unlike some of the wealthy Gulf states and even Saudi Arabia (who have largely paid lip-service to the plight of the Palestinians), Iran rages against the injustices of 1948 and the continued “occupation” of Palestine.
A further point that Iranian diplomats often make is the arbitrary and unjust nature of the current nuclear status quo. With the five original nuclear powers being joined surreptitiously by Israel, India and Pakistan, Iran feels isolated and vulnerable. After all, even Saudi Arabia purportedly has standing arrangements with Pakistan for nuclear materials and hardware. In response, Iran claims to have mastered the use of asymmetric warfare — sleeper cells, suicide squads, IEDs, covert assassinations and logistical support for irregular troops. While these activities have much in common with al Qaeda, Taliban and ISIS, they represent an entirely different thing.
Apocalyptic groups like ISIS have at their root a diabolical, end-of-all type of aim, while Iran’s activities have clear rational or at least rationalise-able motives that are within the normal range of a nation state’s global purpose.
As such, General Qassem Soleimani’s activities and career have to be seen within this context: He was a legitimate officer and a soldier of Iran. He was not only a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, but also led the fight against Sunni extremists and ISIS in Iraq, and countered Sunni-Wahabi extremism across the Middle East. No doubt America was his enemy in the past, but they also worked with him. It is indeed telling of the status quo before he was assassinated that US generals remember having parked their jets next to his at the Baghdad International Airport.
Whether Soleimani’s past makes him a likely war criminal or not, the US cannot abrogate to itself the right to mete out drone-delivered justice, and so, any arguments in favour of an ethical justification for the assassination based on his past are empty. We used to have imperfect, yet principled approaches to such people — the International Criminal Court and prosecution under the Geneva Convention. This is a purely political act of open hostility by a member state of the international community and a largely unprovoked one at that. Public international law justifies the use of armed force only in response to armed aggression, but a small allowance for limited pre-emptive action exists where there is a clear and present danger of impending attacks. This argument has, throughout the war on terror, been stretched to the point of breaking. In the deadly and opaque world of espionage and disinformation, the definition of a perceived threat has become meaningless.
The US action suffers from other disadvantages: While Donald Trump’s self-touted “unpredictability” does make strategic sense, it serves only to weaken the norms that allow nations to conduct commerce together and share in each others’ culture and values. Reducing international relations to a game theory-based confrontation is dangerous. While irresponsibly withdrawing from large parts of the world, abandoning the US’s NATO allies in Eastern Europe and demolishing its diplomatic ties with nations, big and small, Trump has now also used US military power to illegitimately assassinate a senior, if dubious, member of the Iranian government. It is only to be hoped that Iran sees it fit not to respond with vengeance at all costs, for that will only bring the world closer to a catastrophic conflict.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 9, 2020 under the title ‘Drone-delivered Injustice’. Shah is an alumnus of London School of Economics, Cambridge and Harvard. He lives and works in Mumbai.
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