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The US-Iran Conflict and Breach of International Law

When it comes to the negligence of a sense of duty towards International statutes no other man made quarrel can be held as guilty as the conflict of interests that arises between rival nations that often leads to war hence causing a monumental loss of life as the rules of International (Humanitarian) law are often neglected.

The United States has always had a rocky relationship with Iran ever since the pro-American Shah was ousted in the Islamic Revolution in January 1979. The Shah's main critic Ayatollah Khomeini who was also a vehement critic of the American government returned from exile and established the Islamic Republic of Iran and destroyed all the western reforms of the Shah whom he called an American puppet., there is truth in this statement as the Americans launched a coup d'état against the popularly elected Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 as he was on the verge of hurting Western oil interests when he nationalised the oil industry during his tenure.

This nefarious act is something that is still condemned by the Iranian people even today and not just by the present Khamenei regime, one one of the first political acts after the second world war that destroyed the international convention of non-interference in other's state of affairs starting a cold war between two governments that continues even today that has also caused the birth of numerous different proxy wars in the Middle-East with pro-American and pro-Iranian regimes having a go against each other without accountability.
Keywords: International statutes, war, conflict of interests, International (Humanitarian) law, coup d'état, proxy war.

During war, the laws are silent. – Quintus Tullius Cicero

Fear of an inevitable communist takeover of the sovereign States of liberated Europe after Nazi Germany's surrender in May 1945 is what compelled Roosevelt's successor Harry Truman to interfere in the rehabilitation of these States who were already devastated economically by the consequences of a long world war, this rehabilitation was done not on moral grounds but on specific political grounds which would profit the capitalist block led by the United States as statistics showed that upcoming elections in the countries of mainland Europe like France, Italy, Belgium would soon come under the umbrella of socialist or communist parties which followed the Marxist ideology propagated by America's new adversary the Soviet Union led by Joseph Stalin. This was however unacceptable to Truman who was far more scathing than his predecessor Roosevelt when it came to the policy of tacking communism.

Truman put the fear of socialism in Congress and got them to approve a $400 million emergency package to the countries of Greece and Turkey so that the government of these countries could thwart the communist insurgencies in their country, this aid was one of the first methods of interference by any American government to a foreign nation and would serve as a precedent for future American imperialist action to combat anti-democratic regimes around the world. To justify this course, Truman said: I believe we must assist free peoples to work out their destinies in their own way.

In June 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall proposed the extension of massive economic assistance to the devastated nations of Europe, saying that the policy of the United States was not directed against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the existence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.

What the Secretary of State left unsaid was that while the U.S. plan would be open to the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe, it emphasized the free market economy as the best path to economic reconstruction—and the best defence against communism in Western Europe. Congress responded to Marshall's proposal by authorizing the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan. An investment of about $13 billion in Europe during the next few years resulted in the extraordinarily rapid and durable reconstruction of a democratic Western Europe.[1]

The point that must be taken from the aforementioned American action is a very crucial one and that is the absence of any permission or approval from the newly formed Security Council of the United Nations and this contravention of international convention on which the United Nations were formed is what fuelled future American interference in world geo-politics culminating in the present American foreign policy even though no actual international law was broken by the Americans in the beginning but just plain ignorance of international accountability no matter how in jeopardy(according to United States) the free liberal democracies of the world were from the communist forces.

American interference in world affairs increased tenfold especially after the 1950's when communist States were being formed, especially in Asia; for example the declaration of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea under Soviet backed Kim-Il-Sung, the formation of Communist China under Mao Zedong, the birth of Communist States in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, these States made the Americans very uneasy and they sought for excuses to intervene wherever possible often bypassing the United Nations.

At this time another incident was taking shape at the world stage and that was the formation of the facets of International Humanitarian Law under the umbrella of the Geneva Convention of 1949 where both the United States and Iran were signatories in 1955 and 1957 respectively.

The core general principles of are International Humanitarian Law are[2]:

  1. The principle of distinction, which provides that parties to a conflict must distinguish between military objectives and civilian objectives, and may only target military objectives.
  2. The prohibition on attacking persons hors de combat (French for outside the fight), being anyone who is in the power of an adverse party, is defenceless (because of unconsciousness, shipwreck, wounds or sickness), or who expresses an intention to surrender, and abstains from any acts of hostility.
  3. The prohibition on inflicting unnecessary suffering, or causing a harm greater than that unavoidable to achieve legitimate military purposes.
  4. The principle of proportionality, which provides that belligerents may only use the amount and kind of force necessary to overcome the enemy and must act to limit collateral damage.
  5. The principle of necessity, which permits measures which are actually necessary to accomplish a legitimate military purpose and are not otherwise prohibited by international humanitarian law. In an armed conflict, the only legitimate military purpose is to weaken the military capacity of the enemy.

The First Geneva Convention of 1949, referred as GC I, protects wounded and sick members of armed forces in the field. It provides rules for the protection of medical personnel, the evacuation and treatment of the wounded and sick, and regulates the use of protective emblems such as the red cross and red crescent. The Second Geneva Convention, or GC II, similarly protects the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea.

The Third Geneva Convention, or GC III, provides protection to prisoners of war. It provides rules regarding their capture, their internment, and their release and repatriation. The Fourth Geneva Convention, or GC IV, provides protection for civilians in times of armed conflict and lays down rules relating to the occupation of territory by hostile forces. And since every state in the world has ratified the four 1949 Conventions, they therefore necessarily apply to every armed conflict the world over[3].

The first issue that opened hostilities between the newly formed Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America was the issue of the extradition of the recently exiled Shah of Iran who was admitted to the United states for chemotherapy; the Iranian regime wanted the Americans to hand him over to face justice for crimes against the Iranian people during his rule but the Americans refused to extradite him.

This move further aggravated the Iranian populace culminating into the storming of the American embassy at Tehran by Iranian mobs leading to the capture of 66 American diplomats and staff which was a gross contravention of diplomatic rules codified in the pages of International Law which started an enmity between two nations at the world stage that even resonates today, the Iranians drew themselves into the spotlight but not in the way they hoped for this act drew condemnation from all around the world as the concept of diplomatic immunity (This rule was mentioned under Article 29 of the Vienna Convention in 1961) and the sovereignty of embassies on foreign soil was almost as holy as the Bible in the diplomatic world and the excuse of the American embassy being a nest of spies was not even accepted by the Soviets! This was the first breach of International Law by Iran and now the ball was in America's court to give an answer to this monstrous betrayal of their sovereignty.

The Carter administration tried to get the hostages back from the grasp of the Iranians by whatever means necessary i.e. by hook or by crook even attempting a covert operation which had to be abandoned midway, it was however during the beginning of the early hours of the Reagan administration that the hostages were freed in return for some Iranian State assets being unfrozen by the Americans but Ronald Reagan continued his predecessors policy of not falling prey or appease what Carter called Iranian sponsored international blackmail.

After the hostages were released in 1980 another issue came to light and that was a conflict which would see Iran and the U.S fighting each other indirectly for the first time on the battlefield and that was on the background of the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88).

The Iraqis under Saddam Hussein who were Arabs had a long history of enmity with the Iranians who were actually Persians culturally, this rivalry ranged from geographical differences to religious conflicts and most importantly the factor of oil could not be ignored. Saddam's Ba'athist party had a good relationship with the Shah's regime as they were both backed by America and were progressive by nature but the ascent of Khomeini to Iran's leadership soon turned things sour for Saddam as Khomeini was a fundamentalist Muslim and a Shia and Saddam was a Sunni Muslim leader who ruled over a majority Shia population of Iraq; Khomeini found the idea of a Sunni ruling over a majority Shia country as absolutely ludicrous and he was not one to shy away from feigning such blatant disgust towards Saddam's regime, this did not bode well for Saddam as he was already having trouble with the ethnic Iraqi groups like the Kurds who wanted independence and the Shia's who were bothering him at every step.

 Saddam knew that the day was not far when the Islamic Republic of Iran would have intervened directly in the politics of his country and he needed an excuse to deal with his neighbours to the east, not only that it was Hussein's dream to occupy the oil rich Iranian province of Khuzestan which also housed the important Khorramshahr port.

Saddam later accused the Iranian leadership of financing fundamentalist Shias against him and he invaded his neighbour promptly. America gave both military and political support to Saddam's Iraq but their main aim was the destabilization of the armed forces of both the nations as they were not only oil rich but their armies i.e. the Iraqi army posed a real threat to America's long term partner Israel and the Iranian's had the largest army in the region and they too needed to be obliterated by hook or by crook and a new war played well into America's hands as the perfect way to see this through.

Constant supply of weapons to the Iraqi regime during a United Nations condemnation of a regional war was another international convention broken by the Americans but they were smart enough to loophole their way out of it by lobbying or playing both sides.

The Americans were going to wish that they weren't putting up a double face when it came to a confrontation with Iran, as during the Iraq-Iran war Ronald Reagan approved a secret high-profit arms sale to Iran in hopes that it would yield the return of Americans held hostage in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a militia with close ties to Iran, this fiasco later become known as the Iran-Contra affair which was leaked to the known world by the western media which caused a lot of embarrassment to the Reagan administration.

Jus ad bellum  is the Latin term commonly used to describe the  rule  that states may not use, or threaten to use, force in their international relations. This is a natural and necessary  rule  to protect each state's sovereign rights. It is accepted and asserted by all nations  and  was codified  in international law with the drafting of the  United Nations Charter in 1945.

There are three exceptions to this prohibition. The first exception is when the force is conducted by the state within the state's boundaries, with no violation of sovereignty.

A second exception to the prohibition of the use of force, inapplicable here, is when force is authorized by the U.N. Security Council, for example in peacekeeping operations. 

But the third exception is important. The prohibition does not apply to acts of self-defence in response to an attack. This exception, also written into the U.N. Charter, provides most of the fodder for debate about the recent hostilities between the U.S. and Iran.

By now, most people are familiar with the notion that the right of self-defence applies only in response to, or in the event of imminent threat. What has received less airplay, however, are the elements of an imminent threat and other conditions that apply to uses of force. To be imminent, a threat must be so direct as to provide no option but the use of force. An unspecified threat that may materialize in the future doesn't count. Even then, the force must be reasonably calculated to ameliorate the threat.[4]

Now the interesting news that recently flared up tensions between the US and Iran was a direct issue that touches the aforementioned exceptions to the use of force by a sovereign State and which will be the main focus of this paper relating to the breach of international law and that was the legality of the death of Iranian top supremo Qassim Soleimani who was killed in an American drone strike along with his aides at Baghdad airport. According to political analysts Soleimani was the number two man in the Iranian regime after Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his death sent shockwaves throughout Iran.

Donald Trump accused Soleimani of planning attacks on four American embassies in the past and the planning of other attacks on American personnel, this was the reason why he had to be taken out, sadly the country again dragged into this sordid affair between Iran and the US happened to be Iraq. Soleimani was a well-respected figure in Iraq as he was the individual who played a direct role in the leading of Iraqi troops in their fight against the ISIS scourge and he was the one who rooted them out of Iraq during his tenure as military advisor to the Iraqi army, his death greatly angered the Iraqis who not only saw it as murder but also a clear insult to their sovereignty by the Americans when they launched an attack on their soil without their approval, this was also a clear breach of international law pertaining to a countrys sovereignty.

The U.S. targeting of Soleimani is unlawful, not only because no imminent threat has been identified, but also because even if one was identified, it is difficult to see how Soleimani's death would just end the threat. He had been replaced and his forces can still act. Soleimani wasn't just some ordinary military leader but was one of the legends of the Iranian old guard who first saw action during his countries war against Saddam's erstwhile regime, he knew the topography of the Iraqi desert really well which helped him combat the ISIS problem, he was also an advisor to Bashar-Al-Assad's Syrian regime in their fight against American backed Syrian rebels.

 Not only was Soleimani a thorn in the flesh for America but he was a scourge for the Iran's number one enemy in the region and staunch American ally, the Sunni majority Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which is ruled by the all-powerful Al-Saud family and where Crown Prince Mohammad-Bin-Salman holds the actual power. Qassim Soleimani was responsible for giving direct logistical and military support to the Iranian backed Houthi rebels who overthrew the pro-Saudi regime in Yemen which was also a majority Shia State, and the interesting issue for mentioning Saudi Arabia is their clear refusal to respect Yemen's sovereignty when they were casually conducting air strikes supported by American fuel tankers on Houthi positions in Yemen not caring for the civilian casualties they left in their wake. Surprisingly Iran suffering from economic sanctions ever since the establishment of their Islamic Republic has found the need to gather support for their main political goal which they think is the only counter to American aggression and that has been the goal of becoming a nuclear State.

This dream of an Iranian nuclear state is what scares the Americans the most as American already has a bad relationship with nuclear armed countries like the Russian Federation, the People's Republic Of China and the Democratic People's Republic Of Korea and another nuclear armed enemy is something America did not need, so stricter sanctions were enforced against Iran in hopes that their economic woes would force them to give up their costly research on nuclear energy but a nuclear deterrent was a good investment if the Iranian regime wanted to maintain their security and that of their people's.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the reins of the government of Iran he made it a fact to the known world that he was going to play hardball against the US and its allies especially after when George W. Bush inserted Iran into what he termed axis of evil along with North Korea and Iraq, Ahmadinejad was a conservative hardliner who was not amenable to the past moderate principles of his predecessor Khatami and he aggressively pursued the objective of nuclear weapons much to the chagrin of America, Israel and Saudi Arabia which also made the diplomatic world uneasy.

Ahmadinejad also brought out Iran from diplomatic isolation and was one of the first Iranian leaders to address the UN General Assembly where he hinted that Iran was willing to negotiate, as long as sanctions were ceased and their sovereignty would be maintained which indirectly meant that Iran would be willing to obey the facets of International law that the Americans so proudly followed and discreetly broke whenever it suited them.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policies were not so widely accepted in the domestic sphere as he was not able to reduce the sanctions against Iran and all that he got from the international sphere was scorn and silence but he was able to make America understand that they needed to change their foreign policy as the Iranian nuclear program was slowly gaining momentum and Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria were hurting their interests especially in the crude oil sector for example Iran recently attacked a Saudi oil tanker in the Persian Gulf clearly breaking international maritime laws and disrupting Saudi oil business which had considerable American investment, this breach of International law led to an American drone onslaught on Iranian proxies in the Middle East which ultimately led to the drone strike that killed General Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad.
In 2013, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected with a mandate to further increase Iran's engagement with international law and institutions.

To solve the nuclear issue, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif led an arduous 20 month negotiation culminating in the 2015 nuclear deal, which was adopted as a resolution by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as international law. The effect of this resolution was that Iran remains under the most robust monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of any country in the world. The IAEA has consistently confirmed that Iran is satisfying its nuclear-related obligations under the JCPOA since its inception.

When the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018, Iran not only remained in the legal framework, it took its grievances with the US as a legal dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), specifically in relation to the US's breach of the nuclear deal and the re-imposition of sanctions, as well as the freezing of Iranian assets in US jurisdiction. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded by urging that the ICJ's ruling in favour of Iran be ignored, arguing the court failed to recognise its lack of jurisdiction and that Iran had attempted to interfere with the sovereign rights of the United States.

While Iran has certainly not always adhered to international law, it shows a willingness to engage with it that is unprecedented in the contemporary era.[5]

Coming back to the issue of retaliatory strikes, Iran launched a series of ballistic strikes on American army bases in Iraq in response to the drone strike on Soleimani's convoy in Baghdad, as Ayatollah Khomeini swore that Iran would avenge the death of their martyr, no American personnel were killed but what was killed was most certainly Iraqi sovereignty and the Iranian commitment to stay true to the facets of International Law which even the Iranian's chose to ignore in their quest for retribution.

So paranoid were Iran that in a fit of anxiety and tension they shot down an Iranian passenger flight they thought to be an American missile or fighter jet bound for Tehran. Such action far exceeded the response a sovereign country was allowed to take, as an act of self-defence had to be proportionally retaliatory as mandated by the rules of self-defence as laid down by International Law and it was ultimately Canadian and Ukrainian passengers who had to pay a steep price but to maintain their standing in the International sphere Iran owned up to their actions and apologised to the known world promising strict action would be taken as any responsible state would do, this gesture is something that most countries like America always refrained from doing whenever they are at fault whether it be in Europe, the Middle East, Vietnam, Korea or even their savage nuclear attacks on the Japanese Cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Accountability is always a trait that is required by countries that practice International law and this is something Iran has adopted which has helped them maintain relationships with the countries of mainland Europe like France, Germany, Switzerland etc.

Commitment is another issue that is needed to maintain the structure which is International Law and not adhering to the basic proponents of a nuclear deal especially when the concerned nation i.e. Iran has closely followed all the conditions as assured by the International Atomic agencies is something that is roughly unfair and the arguments of a new American administration that the deal is too one sided without any logical basis or concrete proof is absolutely bogus and hypocritical and brings back the memories of the inept and partisan attitude of the erstwhile League of Nations that refused to take proper action against aggressive members which created a background that led to a second world war.

The irony lies in the fact that a country ruled by the idea of Rule of law refuses to stay true to International laws while a country ruled over by Islamic clergymen tries to follow International standards and conventions.

The breach of International Law has always been a symbol to mark the conflict between Washington and Tehran. The accession of the Trump administration has opened up old wounds which had been sealed by the Obama Administration which would have brought a lasting peace in the Persian Gulf, but Trump's fear that a prosperous Iran would lead to the death of American interests in the region as well as the security of his closest allies i.e. Saudi Arabia and Israel were also at stake as Iran swore to wipe Israel off the face of the map and sought the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy who were not only their political but religious enemies too.

Trump's plan has always been to keep his nationalistic idea of America first but he needed some kind of investment to assure his Israeli and Saudi allies that he had not abandoned them to a powerful Iranian nation.

So Trump chose the best method available to him and that was to diplomatically aggravate Iran into doing something rash, the constant unveiling of Israeli intelligence that Iran was not staying true to its commitments as laid down in the Nuclear deal of 2015 is something that the Americans have used to turn the countries of the world against Iran as no one could refute the legitimacy of Israeli intelligence which happened to be the best in the world and Saudi diplomatic needling like the execution of Shia clerics in Riyadh is something that angered the Iranians which led to the storming of the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran which was another insult to public International law as diplomatic immunity is a convention that needs to be followed to understand the professionalism and legitimacy of a government in power, all these incidents were used by Trump to label the Iranians of being untrustworthy and hence their commitments to the nuclear deal were scrupulous at the best and the deal had to be re-negotiated so as to maintain a status-quo that would be amenable to Trump and his allies.

But a country that always follows strict Islamic guidelines in relation to their domestic and foreign policy finds it very suspicious when a foreign government goes back on its word on a deal no matter how pure or strict the democratic process in that country is, such change of administration is nothing new to Iran but to it important policies of an erstwhile administration ought to be followed by the new administration especially when all parties profited from such a deal, Iran's main aim has always been the cessation of economic sanctions against it and the rolling back of its nuclear programme to it seemed a worthy sacrifice for economic prosperity but the consequence of the re-admittance of sanctions and the labelling of its elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation is not something that can be forgotten so easily especially when Iran followed all the rules and international conventions and even lodged a complaint with the International Court of Justice.

The idea of Quid Pro Quo is what the Iranians adhered to but now they have been given no incentive to maintain their moderate behaviour and they have now increased their uranium enrichment facilities so as to manufacture nuclear weapons something which President Hassan Rouhani has been reluctant to do ever since he took office but now the atmosphere is such that Iran is now like a wounded lion cornered on all sides by its enemies and Rouhani has to act to protect his regime from its enemies as sheltering behind International Law has not been beneficial to Iran and is deemed meek by his superior Ali Khamenei as America always finds a way to twist the initiative into its hands by using its all-powerful administrative and diplomatic techniques in the United Nations and as most countries don't want to be dragged into vengeful American tactics as Saddam learned the hard way when his regime was toppled even though when he reaffirmed that his country had no weapons of mass destruction which the Bush administration vehemently refuted as false as their intelligence agencies had concrete evidence.

Saddam even followed International Law by allowing UN weapons inspectors to visit and inspect his weapon stockpiles and the UN inspectors agreed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction but the Bush regime refused to follow the advice of legitimate UN sources and carried on with the invasion of Iraq by twisting International law to their needs as they were confident of false Iraqi conjecture and testimony which actually turned out to be true as they had no weapons of mass destruction which led to the discrediting of American Intelligence agencies and the trust in legitimate American action for the common good was busted.

The invasion of Iraq did more harm than good as the cruel yet stable Saddam regime was needed to maintain peace in the region whose absence led to the birth of numerous conflicts and terrorist groups like Al-Qaida and ISIS who destabilized the whole region and who wholeheartedly refused to follow International Law but actually sought to destroy it.

Iran taking a leaf out of Iraq's past mistakes has always kept a foot in both sides of a conflict and has always chosen a side that will not only stay true to International Law but will also further its interests as the policy of staying true to International Law may bring the government of the country the credibility and legitimacy it needs from the outside world and take its place as a respected member of the world order of the 21st century.

  1. OFFICE OF THE HISTORIAN, Department of State of the United States of America (March. 5, 2020, 21:12),
  2. Ben Tippet, WHAT ARE THE LAWS OF WAR, AND WHY DO THEY MATTER?, DEADSPIN (March 5,2020, 22:59),
  3. Ben Tippet, WHAT ARE THE LAWS OF WAR, AND WHY DO THEY MATTER?, DEADSPIN (March 6,2020, 10:40),
  4. Gabor Rana, Iran and Trump likely broke international law. And 176 innocents paid the price, euronews (March 6, 2020, 21:01),
  5. Melinda Rankin, The looming international law paradox between the US and Iran, theinterpreter,(March 7, 2020, 22:18),

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