Never has the Spector of a full-blown war between the United States of America and Iran seemed so imminent then it did on the 3rd of January, 2020 following the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the long-serving head of Iran’s Quds (“Jerusalem”) Force. This was the first time a serving Iranian General had been directly targeted by the US not surprisingly, this disturbed the fragile force balance in the region and a response from the Iran was expected.
Iran has been working on boosting its sphere of influence ever since the revolution of 1979. Her main tool in this regard was the aforementioned Quds force albeit through proxies she never directly confronted Uncle Sam. But with the assassination of Sulimani however she now had ‘casus belli’.
The Iranian response came in the form of missile strikes on American bases in Iraq albeit no casualties however have been reported. Following the strikes the tensions have deescalated for now, however, in the globalized era that we live in today that is directed by International Law, it would be advantageous to consider this ongoing episode from the lenses of the international treaties and covenants that bind most Nations to ensure peace.
Before we divulge into the relevant treaties and covenants it would be advantageous to understand the fact that the current framework of International Law came about after the Second World War. Where the allies established it by virtue of conventions such as the Geneva conventions and the United Nations Charter. The authors had three main goals in mind when they were drafting the said framework. Firstly, they wanted to minimize global war by making it illegal in contrast with the old-world order of Dutch thinker, Hugo Grotius, who in the 17th century categorized war is a just means of enforcing a state’s rights. As there was no international organization working for maintaining international peace states took the law into their own hands. He best summarized his ideas by stating “Where judicial settlement ends, war begins”.
Today by virtue of the United Nations wars can’t be wagged without due cause or right.Secondly the only accepted justification for war was set as action in self defense and collective action sanctioned by the United Nations and lastly the International Framework expects National Governments to pursue their own strategic interests keeping in mind two main goals of Global Peace and international cooperation.
In regards to the ongoing tensions between the US and Iran there are 3 main events we must consider. Firstly, the unprovoked assassination of General Suliemani, secondly the Iranian response to the assassination and lastly the sanctions imposed by the US.
The assassination of General Suliemani in Bagdad came as a surprise to the international community. President Trump justified the attack by stating that Suiemani was plotting “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and American personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.”. it needs to be kept in mind that Suliemani was no Osama bin Laden he was a serving General of the Iranian Military. In a statement to a media outlet Gary Solis, a retired Marine who taught on the laws of war at West Point, stated what happened is comparable to Iran killing a high-ranking U.S. military official with a bomb on U.S. soil. Furthermore, if we are to refer to Article 2(4) of the UN charter which states “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” One may argue that the US was in violation. Another aspect that has to be kept in mind is that this assassination was carried out on Iraqi soil without the prior approval of the Iraqi government this in itself amounts to a breach of Iraqi sovereignty
Furthermore, if we are to move forward to Iran’s response one has to acknowledge its precision and proportionate nature as per Article 51 of the UN charter “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defense shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
In accordance with customary International law self-defense is permissible as long as the response was proportionate to the original attack and directed against military targets. In Iran’s case she has met these conditions albeit the country after three days of refusal admitted accidently shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane which resulted in innocent lives being lost. This may enable all the countries whose citizens lost their lives as a result those countries being Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, and the UK to demand reparations.
The last major event in regards to the current tensions would be the new rounds of sanctions imposed by the USA on Iran in response to the missile strikes. The sanctions however seem to be symbolic in nature as they only stop top Iranian officials from accessing international banking systems.
The international framework that came about as a result of the 2 Great Wars ushered a new age for peace, that framework although not perfect was able to limit wars to regional rivalries not letting the horrors of the two world wars repeat themselves. However this was possible because the major powers themselves adhered to the covenants. In light of the recent tensions we can observe a stark contrast that Martin Luther king Jr beautifully expressed “peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice”