Ignoring International Law on Iran

President George W. Bush and his neocon advisers made much of mocking international law, with Bush once responding to a question in fake horror: “I better call my lawyer.” But the issue of the U.S. and its allies abiding by such laws is front and center again with Iran, notes Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Former British diplomat Peter Jenkins (who had been Britain’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency) notes a glaring but seldom remarked-upon aspect of the voluminous talk in Israel, the United States and other countries about a possible military attack aimed at Iran’s nuclear program: such an attack would be a blatant, flagrant violation of international law.

The Charter of the United Nations is very clear in prohibiting the offensive use of military force, regardless of the nature of the underlying dispute. An armed attack conducted in the name of setting back a technical program that possibly could lead in the future to development of a weapon that other states, including the one doing the attacking, already have does not even come close to constituting self-defense as also mentioned in the U.N. Charter.

President George W. Bush

The international norm against offensive warfare, like certain other norms that also have become codified international law, reflects a broadly held moral standard. Not even the most inventive casuistry can justify, legally or morally, the launching of an offensive war to help maintain some other state’s regional nuclear weapons monopoly.

But set aside for the moment any of those soft concerns about morality and obedience to the law for its own sake. Set aside as well all the other reasons that an armed attack on Iran would be folly. The flouting of the norm and the law about offensive war would have negative consequences that ought to get the attention of even the most amoral, hard-boiled cynic when it comes to things such as international law. Two sets of consequences in particular.

One is an accentuation of the opprobrium, condemnation and other directly negative reactions from the world community. The perpetrator would be seen not just as an arrogant bully but as an outlaw. This would apply to the United States whether it committed the act itself or was seen acquiescing in the deed being done by Israel. The specific repercussions would include countless bits of withheld cooperation and many intangible ways in which those who abhor the acts of an outlaw can make international life more difficult for him.

The other set of consequences involves weakening of the norm against offensive war and increasing the likelihood that others, including adversaries of the United States, would violate it. (Unfortunately the United States already delivered one of the bigger recent blows to the norm with its initiation of the Iraq War in 2003.)

A world in which states are more likely to launch offensive wars would be more detrimental to U.S. interests than a world in which the rule against launching such wars is respected. A more war-prone world would entail more destruction, instability and undermining of an international order that for the most part works in favor of its most powerful member, the United States.

John Ikenberry has explained how submission to international rules, as embodied in international law and organizations, can be advantageous even for a state such as the United States that appears powerful enough to flout the rules and do as it likes. The advantages include greater efficiency (greater, that is, than repeated applications of brute force) in the operation of an international order that works in favor of the state in question, and perpetuation of that order even after that state’s relative power might wane.

Ikenberry’s analysis is usually thought of as a liberal alternative to realist thinking, but the dependent variables he addresses, an individual great power’s interests, the costs of advancing those interests, and how those interests can be upheld over time, are very much the sort of currency that realists understand. The advantages he describes of respecting international rules need to be taken into account before any exercise of power that would violate the rules.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “Ignoring International Law on Iran

  1. TomB
    August 26, 2012 at 02:29

    Actually, I believe everything in this article speaks for why the United States is more likely to either carry out the attack, or let Israel do it.
    Ask yourself: what is the most profitable industry in the U.S.? It isn’t the oil industry, although most pundits readily point to energy industry profits as a prime motivation for U.S. aggression in the Middle East. No, the powerhouse of our industrial base is the armaments industry, and has been for a great number of years. As General Smedley Butler pointed out in his 1934 tome “War Is A Racket,” it is easily the most profitable enterprise in history.
    The U.S. Government is the world’s arms merchant. The U.S. president is its leading salesperson. This government of ours accounts for roughly half the world’s arms sales. By ourselves, we spend ten times as much as our nearest rival does on armaments. It isn’t in our war industry’s interests to see peace break out anywhere on this planet, at any point in the near future.
    Therefore, it directly serves the interests of the oligarchs in charge of this industrial base (and, by extension,our government) to make policy that feeds this industrial base. A “weakening of the norm against offensive war and increasing the likelihood that others, including adversaries of the United States, would violate it”is exactly what they would like to see.
    It is necessary to keep in mind that the sociopaths running things in this country do not care one whit for the well-being of anyone or anything other than the content of their bank accounts and the quality of their lives. Your life doesn’t matter in any way, shape, or form.
    It is also important to remember that the mainstream media isn’t going to hold them accountable either. They own the mainstream media, so it merely acts as a conduit for influencing the public in favor of their sanguinary policies. If in doubt, ask yourself why a public majority believes Iran would actually be stupid enough to threaten the world’s premier nuclear power (5,000-plus warheads at last count) or its allies with an attack that would lead to the immediate extermination of the entire Iranian populace if its government was dumb enough to try carrying it out.

  2. rlaing
    August 23, 2012 at 19:30

    Obviously, America’s rulers understand this issue of aggressive war differently.

    Take Iraq for example. Its oil is of a very high quality. It can be sold profitably at any imaginable global price. Profit margins are very high, on the order of 90%. How is this bounty to be divided?

    A sovereign Iraq could do all kinds of things. It could pump using infrastructure developed since foreign multinationals were kicked out in the 70’s or left behind by them (assuming no damage by sanctions or foreign attack) and keep all of that cream for itself. Or it could open development up to competitive bidding, and keep almost all of that cream for itself.

    An not-sovereign Iraq, say one under foreign occupation, might on the other hand find itself in a position of having to accept whatever terms those multinationals choose to dictate through their chosen puppets, and get to keep next to none of that cream.

    As it happens, the oil law the multinationals wanted still hasn’t been passed. Turns out that their chosen instrument, the US military, did not achieve quite the monopoly on violence that was hoped for. In fact, unable to secure immunity for US troops to commit any kind of crime they like, Obama has been obliged to remove them, although of course 10s of thousands of US mercenaries remain.

    Okay, so it didn’t work out optimally. But what else were they to do? The thing had to be tried to know whether it would work or not.

  3. Dan
    August 23, 2012 at 15:36

    “A world in which states are more likely to launch offensive wars would be more detrimental to U.S. interests than a world in which the rule against launching such wars is respected.”

    Except, of course, to the military-industrial complex which loves nothing more than making profits by arming the world.

  4. incontinent reader
    August 23, 2012 at 13:10

    Great article.

  5. Ed
    August 23, 2012 at 13:08

    Excellent. It is also the same crime to merely threaten to attack another country as Obama and Leon have done numerous times. Listening to On Point NPR the other night I was struck that not one mention of this pesky fact was even mentioned, let alone discussed. It was all about when, how, who, the right way, the wrong way, etc. That’s your liberal radio for ya.

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