Yale News

The airstrike that killed Major General Qasem Soleimani earlier this month has generated reactions from across the globe, including some from members of the Yale community.

On Jan. 3, a United States drone strike resulted in the death of Soleimani, a man considered to be the second most powerful person in Iran behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Soleimani’s death has heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, leading many experts — including those at the University — to weigh in on the long-term implications, legality and rationale of such an attack. For some Yale scholars, Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani is just one more instance of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East. But for others, the recent events represent a means of creating a more stable world.

“I have been teaching here for 36 years, and I must confess that although over the years things have deteriorated, I have barely ever seen the crisis — the global crisis, particularly the Middle Eastern crisis — reach this stage of deterioration that we witnessed over the past week or so,” said Abbas Amanat, director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies. “That shows the level of how serious this is.”

Amanat sees the conflict between the two nations as rooted in decades of tension, he said. He pointed to the United States’ history of involving itself in Middle Eastern affairs. For example, Amanat cited the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as the “uncategorical and complete support for the state of Israel and many of the crimes it committed against the Palestinans.” He added that these actions have contributed to Iranian rhetoric dubbing the United States the “Great Satan.” In his opinion, the current U.S. justification for Soleimani’s assassination — that the strike would deter imminent attacks on Americans — is not sound, and he stated that the Trump administration has provided no acceptable evidence to support its claims of such impending threats.

But Charles Hill, a senior lecturer in Humanities, argued that the attack that killed Soleimani was justified. In Hill’s opinion, because Soleimani was the most powerful Iranian leader for many years, his death provides a possibility of forestalling Iranian disruptions of peace efforts in the Middle East and beyond.

“For years he conducted an omnidirectional war on world order with the U.S. as his preferred target; he was a warlord commander of a revolutionary force bent on destabilizing world order,” Hill wrote in an email to the News.

In addition to a debate over whether the attack was justified, scholars have also questioned the legality of such a move. According to both domestic and international law experts, the attack that killed Soleimani has a tenuous legal basis.

Oona Hathaway, a professor of international law at Yale Law School, declined to comment for this story, but directed the News to a recent article she published in The Atlantic in which she explained her thoughts on the attack. In her article, Hathaway stated that domestic law would ordinarily require Trump to seek the approval of Congress to authorize the use of military force. Further, international law would require that the United Nations Security Council provide authorization before he could utilize force, unless the host state consented or the action qualified as self-defense. She writes that in this instance, “Trump did not seek approval in either forum.”

As Yale faculty discuss their views, students have also weighed in on the conflict. Nader Granmayeh ’23, an Iranian-American with family members in Iran, pointed out the human impacts that often go ignored when considering such politically-based conflicts.

“If we get into a full fledged war, the casualties will overwhelmingly be Iranian and Iraqi civilians as well as US military personnel,” Granmayeh wrote in an email to the News. “It will be a disaster for Iranians. But more importantly, this killing [of Soleimani] was not the tipping point. The Iranian people have been suffering for decades because of US sanctions. There was a modest rebound in the economy following the nuclear deal at the end of Obama’s era, but Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has crushed Iranians and their pocket books. They are feeling the pressure more than anyone.”

Despite all of the media attention surrounding the escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States, Amanat said that there is still hope for the situation. He believes that the situation has the potential to change for the better.

Amanat also urged anyone following this conflict to take more classes on the Middle East and to try to see the course of events from a perspective other than that of a global superpower. Associate professor of sociology, history, and international affairs Jonathan Wyrtzen expressed similar sentiments, citing a disconnect between the Iranian and American interpretations of events, motives and history as exacerbating this conflict.

“In the US, across the board, Americans really don’t get the way that US actions and decisions are received on the other side,” Wyrtzen said.

According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran on April 7, 1980.

Julia Bialek | julia.bialek@yale.edu