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Editorial: Johnson's evasiveness on Soleimani's killing heightens the risk of war

BORIS JOHNSON’S claim that “most reasonable people would accept” that the US has a right to defend its bases is a classic sleight of hand aimed at muddying the waters around the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

It takes Britain closer to the prospect of war by spreading confusion over a straightforward and illegal act of war by the United States.

Claims from the US that Soleimani was responsible for “hundreds of American deaths” have now been taken up by the Conservatives, who state that he also had “the blood of British troops” on his hands. 

Yet as US international relations expert Stephen Zunes has pointed out this week in The Progressive, there is actually little evidence that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have been responsible for significant numbers of US deaths, let alone British ones.

The insurgency against the US-led occupation after 2003’s invasion was dominated by Ba’athist and later Sunni extremist organisations hostile to Iran.

Nor, of course, would US or British troops have been at any risk from any of these groups if they had not launched an illegal invasion of the country in the first place.

Going back to the Iraq war is instructive. Partly because this “crime of the century” spawned much of the chaos and destabilisation of the Middle East that has occurred since.

But partly because some of the same tactics are being used to try to bamboozle the public into endorsing unprovoked aggression against another country.

The idea that Soleimani was masterminding large-scale attacks on Western forces quickly runs into problems.

The Iranian-backed militias in Iraq were actually fighting the same enemy the US was in the country — Isis.

In Syria, the US was also working with Kurdish-led forces fighting Isis, as were Iranian forces though in conjunction with the Syrian government.

This was also the main role of Hezbollah in the Syrian war. The only conflict in which Iranian-allied forces are clashing directly with those allied to the US is the war in Yemen, and this is a war in which the US ally (Saudi Arabia) is the aggressor.

Like the “weapons of mass destruction” myth, the US hopes claims that Soleimani presented an imminent threat to its soldiers will not attract much scrutiny.

But revelations from the Iraqi Prime Minister that the general was in Iraq to negotiate a de-escalation of tension with Saudi Arabia give the lie to the White House’s assertions.

As in 2003, the lie aims at shifting the ground on which debate over war takes place — so journalists and politicians start arguing over whether war is a proportionate response to a threat whose existence is taken for granted, rather than questioning the threat itself.

Johnson’s vague reference to “most reasonable people” also evades the actual question Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn asked — whether the killing was illegal. 

Johnson says it is not up to Britain to determine that as it “was not our operation” (presumably he will end Britain’s regular denunciations of other countries, including Iran, for allegedly breaching international law, as these acts too are “not our operations”).

There is nothing new in the double standard — Britain routinely lines up with the US when Washington breaks international law with its murders-by-drone, regime change efforts and attacks on sovereign states. 

But the result has been that international law is weaker than it has ever been. Decades of flagrant lawlessness have brought us to the point where a US President can casually admit sending troops into Syria “to secure the oil” and boast of his ability to deliberately destroy the cultural heritage of other countries.

Corbyn has been a rare leader of the opposition in trying to hold Britain and its allies to the standards we demand of others. Pressure from the anti-war movement will help determine whether Labour continues to do so after him.

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