Keith Locke: NZ's response to Soleimani assassination is shamefully timid

2:17 pm on 8 January 2020

By Keith Locke* for The Spinoff

Opinion - How can New Zealand claim to have an independent foreign policy when it won't even criticise America's assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian leader?

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Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The furthest foreign minister Winston Peters went was to express "strong concern" at the "heightening tensions in Iraq and the region".

Peters' statement could also be read as a justification for the drone killing when he acknowledged "strong US concerns about Iran" and said "the US took action on the basis of information they had".

In fact, the assassination took place against a background of falsehoods, reminding us of the lies previously peddled to justify the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. President Donald Trump even blamed Soleimani for "terror plots as far away as New Delhi and London" while Vice President Mike Pence fancifully claimed Soleimani "assisted in the clandestine travel" of those involved in the 11 September, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

All we have from the United States are vague assertions that Soleimani was planning imminent attacks on US interests. More credible is the assertion of the Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi that Soleimani was in Bagdad at the invitation of the Iraqi government - for negotiations. His visit was apparently not a secret and he was at Baghdad airport in the presence of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a pro-government Iraqi militia leader, who was also assassinated.

Iranians take part in an anti-US rally to protest the killings during a US air strike of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on January 4, 2020 in Tehran, Iran.

Soleimani has been publicly mourned by thousands in Iran and Iraq after he was killed by a US drone at a Baghdad airport. Photo: AFP

Considering New Zealand has soldiers in Iraq, you would think Peters might have shown some interest in what his counterparts in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry thought about the assassination. They said it was "a flagrant breach of Iraq's sovereignty and of all international laws and norms that regulate relations between countries and prohibit the use of their lands to carry out attacks on neighbouring countries".

The Iraqi Parliament followed this up with a resolution calling for an end to "the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil", a resolution targeted particularly at the US military presence.

If he respects Iraqi sovereignty, our foreign minister should set in motion the quick withdrawal of New Zealand soldiers from Iraq. Or will he be supporting Donald Trump, who says that if US troops are forced out he'll slap sanctions on Iraq, which will "make the Iranian sanctions somewhat tame"?

Add to that Trump's repeated threat to destroy Iranian cultural sites, which is a clear war crime. How can New Zealand withhold criticism of such madness?

US President Donald Trump speaks during a 'Evangelicals for Trump' campaign event held at the King Jesus International Ministry on January 03, 2020 in Miami, Florida.

US President Donald Trump. Photo: JIM WATSON / AFP

New Zealand was not alone in its pathetic response to the Soleimani assassination. As far as I can tell virtually all Western governments limited their comments to advising "restraint", particularly by Iran. None directly criticised Trump for ordering the murder of a top leader of an important nation.

Apparently it is now okay to assassinate any top government official you label as a "bad person", whatever the consequences for peaceful relations between nations.

Of course, there are plenty of "bad people" and "bad governments" in the Middle East, but it is up to the people of those countries to deal with them. The Iraqi people were in the process of doing that, with mass protests against government corruption and excessive Iranian influence. Ironically, the US killing of Soleimani has weakened those protests.

New Zealand must speak out against Donald Trump's terrorist assassination of Qasem Soleimani. Not doing so will set a dangerous precedent in world politics, and help make us all less safe.

* Keith Locke is a former Green MP and a board member of the Asylum Seekers Support Trust