The November 27 killing of Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in a roadside ambush near Absard, Iran, has engendered conversation about the morality, legality, and prudence of assassination. In political morality, to talk of assassination at all, for some, is to court what ought to issue in moral condemnation. For others, any out-of-hand dismissal of assassination ought to be tempered by the possible prospect of the low-cost saving of lives and avoidance of larger-scale conflict. Indeed, for many on both sides of the question, to call a thing assassination at all is to suggest a judgment.
One way of framing assassination essentially equates it with what we more commonly call targeted killing. By most accounts, targeted killing involves the use of lethal force with the premeditated intent to kill named adversaries. It can be pursued both within and outside armed conflict as a means of self-defense and, especially nowadays, as operational counterterrorism. For many, however, it is precisely this element of the “named adversary” that is a problem.
To name a name—to identify a particular individual because he is that individual—as deserving to die is supposed by some to represent an assignation of individual guilt inappropriate to warfare. In warfare, classically understood, unless a given warfighter commits war crimes, he is not considered a criminal. But targeted killing, by singling out a particular combatant by name, is seen as declaring that person an outlaw. But if they are an outlaw, then they are not a soldier, and as such, they are, we are reminded, to be charged, arrested, tried, and, if guilty, sentenced—not killed on sight. Assassination understood in this way, therefore, reeks of something perversely extrajudicial.
It shouldn’t necessarily be. The law of armed conflict determines the legality of targeting a particular individual by the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions. Distinction—understood within a just war framework as discrimination—demands that we separate those who are fighting from those who are not.
The death of Fakhrizadeh has been inevitably compared to the January 2020 hit on Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. In my own reflection on that kill, I acknowledged the Munchkin-like satisfaction rightly found in knowing that his reign of terror had come to an end. Satisfaction, I noted, is not glee. There ought to be no joy in the death even of the wicked, that’s to say we ought not rejoice in the thing itself for its own sake, even as we rejoice in what has been saved or vindicated and in punishment of sufficiently grave evil. Any satisfaction that I might feel in Fakhrizadeh’s death does not rise to the same level. While this is partly because I’d never heard of him before the strike, it is also because, to the best of my knowledge, he is not the monster that Soleimani was. Soleimani was directly involved in the deaths of US military and intelligence community personnel. He was killed in a foreign country that he was directly responsible for keeping a warzone. There was clearly just cause for our strike against him.
The case regarding Fakhrizadeh, however, including the moral one, is a bit more complicated. This is easy for me to say because I am not an Israeli. To be sure, even if Fakhrizadeh was not the monster that Soleimani was, he was involved in monstrous things. A general in the Iranian Republican Guard—for what it’s worth, a group officially recognized by the United States as a terrorist group—Fakhrizadeh helped spearhead Iran’s nuclear weapons program. This program was rightly perceived as an explicit threat against Israel, if not other regional rivals and Europe. Iran, we’ll recall, has repeatedly promised the destruction of Israel, and their continued support and arming of Hezbollah proves their aspiration real. Any bomb—nuclear or otherwise—that Iran develops now or in the future already presumes to have the name of every Israeli Jew etched on it.
At the same time, while the death of Soleimani brought an immediate end to an ongoing and grave threat to US interests, Fakhrizadeh’s killing has no direct impact on Iran’s nuclear threat per se, so there can be no claim of imminence justifying killing him. Nor is his role in the Revolutionary Guard necessarily dispositive. One cannot simply go about killing the generals of an adversarial country with which you are not at war. But here we have to hold up fast.
First, it appears that Fakhrizadeh was thought to be involved in efforts to figure out how to fit a nuclear warhead to a missile. That’s no small thing. Samson Option at the ready or not, Israel is in no position to take a wait-and-see attitude toward the prospect of a missilized nuclear threat in Tehran. Taking out Fakhrizadeh might not slow down the Iranian nuclear program, but many observers believe it will hamper any nuclear missile aspirations. This is a sufficiently satisfying outcome. It would accord with Israel’s past military policy toward the nuclear ambitions of her belligerent neighbors in which she seems content with perpetually buying time.
Secondly, the question of whether or not Israel and Iran are at war ought not to be too easily answered in the negative. The problem is that the terms “war” and “peace” do not adequately capture the full spectrum of possible relations between adversary nations. To address this, some just war scholars have employed a criteria using the term vim (force)in place of bellum (war). When it comes to justifying the use of force against an adversary, a jus ad vim criteria requires lower thresholds than does ad bellum. This allows that there are some kinds of injuries—including threats—to a nation that might justify some resort to force, but not outright war. In the case of a developing threat linked to weapons of mass destruction, jus ad vim could argue the justice of using force to eliminate that threat. Side constraints supporting or detracting from that allowance would include considerations of the nature of the regime attempting to acquire the WMD. In the case of Iran, the character of the regime is clear. It can be said this way: If Iran unilaterally disarmed against Israel, there would be no more conflict between Iran and Israel. If Israel unilaterally disarmed against Iran, there would likely be no more Israel.
Such jus ad vim considerations play particularly well in the Middle East. In my piece on Soleimani linked to above, I reference Providence founding publisher Robert Nicholson’s observation that measures short of war are part-and-parcel of political life in the Middle East where “tit-for-tat skirmishes” very often take place instead of large-scale conventional fights. Cycles of violence, Nicholson notes, is often “just the way things work.” Israel has mastered this cycle to good effect.
Importantly, these should not be seen as actions leading up to war but, rather, should clearly be intended as actions alternative to war. If jus ad vim actions fail, therefore, it follows that war might now be seen as the only actually viable and appropriate option.
Of course, on the question of prudence, the use of vim against Fakhrizadeh might prove a miscalculation leading to escalation to a full-blown war. Some have argued that the likelihood of escalation was precisely the point of whoever was behind the killing. With the incoming Biden administration’s expected return to the Iranian nuclear deal, the assassination could be seen as an effort to scuttle that ambition. How the assassination might complicate Biden’s rapprochement with Tehran is clear. However, it seems entirely possible that the opposite can be in play as well. Iran is keen to see a cessation of sanctions against them. They are surely calculating what kind of response might sour even a Biden administration’s willingness to ease back tensions. Now might prove the perfect time to make such a strike.
In any case, peace between Iran and Israel is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, provocative reminders that Tehran can be hit anywhere and at will—especially when such reminders stall nuclear ambitions—cannot readily be decried a bad thing.