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

  • Reg Hammond

    Hmmm. Iranian “General”…but no use of the word “terrorist”? US domestic law requires the President to seek Congressional permission before droning a terrorist? The US should have asked the UN for permission before killing the terrorist? Really? US sanctions are the problem for the Iranian people….not the regime? Israel is criminal? No mention of Iranians protesting and getting slaughtered by the regime; the attack on the US embassy; the hundreds of US troops murdered by the dead terrorist; or the hundreds of thousands of Syrians murdered by the Iranians and Assad. Very impressive indeed.

  • Nancy Morris

    For eight years Obama conducted a drone war that killed lots of people and these same Yale critics of Trump were not vocal. The hypocrisy here is nauseating. And the new criticisms are dead wrong across the board.

    Attorney general Barr has correctly challenged the legalistic nonsense regarding Soleimani’s elimination.

    “Did you give any special consideration of the fact that he was a senior official of another government,” a reporter asked Barr, “that he was a general of Iran?”

    “He was the head of a terrorist organization,” Barr said, adding that that made him a legitimate military target.

    A reporter with CNN asked Barr if the drone strike violated the Constitution.

    “Can you explain to people in Congress, including conservatives who have questions about whether or not this was a constitutional strike given the fact that the Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war — and in this case obviously this was an act of war — and they were not consulted?” the reporter asked.

    “I believe the president clearly had the authority to act as he did,” Barr said, adding that Iran instigated hostilities and the U.S. had the right to respond.

    “We had a situation where the Iranians had already embarked on a series of escalating violent action taken against our allies, taken against the American people, our troops; with the avowed purpose of driving us out of the Middle East,” Barr said.

    “They had attacked shipping the Strait of Hormuz; they had attacked oil fields in Saudi Arabia; they had attacked U.S. bases; they had attacked our embassy; they had killed Americans,” Barr said.

    “These ongoing attacks were being planned and orchestrated by Soleimani,” Barr said. “Our ability to deter attacks had obviously broken down. The Iranians had been given a number of red lines and were crossing those lines.”

    Barr said the Iranians seemed to think they could continue their aggressions “with impunity.”

    “The general in charge of these operations, Soleimani, was clearly a legitimate military target,” Barr said. “We have a very brief window of time to carry out the attack when he arrived in Baghdad to plan and orchestrate follow up attacks on American interests and American people [and] personnel.”

    “So this was a legitimate act of self-defense because it disrupted ongoing attacks that were being conducted,” Barr said, adding that it also acts as a deterrent to future attacks rather than starting a broader conflict.

    Barr also commented on the debate on whether there was an “imminent” threat from Iran ahead of the drone attack.

    “The concept of imminent attack is something of a red herring,” Barr said, given that attacks were already underway.

    “I don’t think there’s a requirement, frankly, for knowing the exact time and place of the next attack,” Barr said. “And that certainly was the position of the Obama administration when it droned leaders of terrorist organizations.”

    So much for the asinine and embarrassing legalistic nitpicking of Trump’s critics. They deserve to rot unread at the bottom of The Atlantic.

    The policy objections expressed here are ridiculous. They ignore Iran’s systematic and unrelenting terrorism, its many ongoing efforts to destabilize neighboring states, and even its attack on the US embassy in Iraq covered by the barest fig leaf of local proxies. For example, to insinuate that US Middle East involvement is somehow the root cause of the recent Iranian missile attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure is incompetent and mindless. Soleimani was the major architect of all of these.

    The criticisms also ignore the fact that Iran is wholly undemocratic and dismissive of international law. Even Soleimani’s very presence in Iraq was forbidden by UN resolution, but there is no mention of that violation here. And the hobgoblin of “war” beyond what Iran has been systematically waging for years is just dishonest tripe. The fact is that Iran is run by insane, violent religious clowns totally lacking democratic legitimacy.

  • Nancy Morris

    In contrast to the weird criticisms of Trump’s Iran action articulated in this article, even the New York Times noted yesterday (Monday) that one reason the United States successfully stared down the Iranian regime last week was that President Donald Trump’s renewed economic sanctions have made the cost of war too high for Iran to bear. In an analysis published Monday, titled “Iran’s Grim Economy Limits Its Willingness to Confront the U.S.,” the Times explained:

    Crippling sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have severed Iran’s access to international markets, decimating the economy, which is now contracting at an alarming 9.5 percent annual rate, the International Monetary Fund estimated. Oil exports were effectively zero in December, according to Oxford Economics, as the sanctions have prevented sales, even though smugglers have transported unknown volumes.

    The bleak economy appears to be tempering the willingness of Iran to escalate hostilities with the United States, its leaders cognizant that war could profoundly worsen national fortunes. In recent months, public anger over joblessness, economic anxiety and corruption has emerged as a potentially existential threat to Iran’s hard-line regime.

    Inflation is running near 40 percent, assailing consumers with sharply rising prices for food and other basic necessities. More than one in four young Iranians is jobless, with college graduates especially short of work, according to the World Bank.


    Some fear that hard-liners within the regime could see war as a potential way to stimulate the economy, the Times notes. However, a full and direct confrontation with the U.S. “would likely weaken the currency and exacerbate inflation, while menacing what remains of national industry.” It could also “threaten a run on domestic banks,” the Times notes.

    Trump’s decision to leave President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran — not just for its nuclear activities but for its terrorism and human rights abuses — has more than wiped out the economic gains Iran achieved by agreeing to the Iran deal in 2015.

    As the Times admits, Trump has left the regime with a set of impossible choices: risk war, and damage the domestic economy further, leading to destabilizing protests; or yield to U.S. demands, saving the economy but also showing Iranians the regime can be defeated.

    When even the arch-Trump-haters at the New York Times divert themselves for a few moments to grudgingly admit Trump’s policies have been as effective as the Times does here, it’s time to sit up, take something to suppress the worst symptoms of one’s Trump Derangement Syndrome, and try hard to think a coherent, reality-based thought or two. Of course many of Trump’s academic critics are incapable of such things.