The US Navy’s aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln transits the Indian Ocean. Image Credit: AP

Much of the debate taking place in the American and Israeli media on whether to go to war against Iran to put a stop to its development of nuclear weapons justifies sanctions and even war by arguing that Iran breached its international obligations.

Sanctions, in the form of a ban on oil purchases from Iran, were imposed by the European Union. Last week, the leaders of the UK, France, and Germany declared in a joint statement: “Iran has so far had no regard for its international obligations...”

A nuclear Iran, the argument goes, would be a danger to its neighbour, and a threat to peace.

What exactly are these international obligations? Iran is being accused of developing nuclear weapons in breach of its treaty obligations under The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran rejects that accusation.

But an argument can be made that those countries that are harassing Iran with sanctions and threats of war have also failed to meet their international obligations.

The NPT obligates the nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, UK, France and China) to negotiate in good faith an end to the nuclear arms race and a date for achieving complete disarmament. The non-nuclear weapon states who are signatories of the treaty undertook not to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. More than 40 years after the NPT was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force two years later, it is an indisputable fact that the nuclear powers are no closer today to achieving nuclear disarmament than they were 40 years ago. And judging by the number of countries that have since achieved nuclear status (Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) the NPT has also failed in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

This does not relieve Tehran from its obligations under the treaty and of its responsibility to fulfil these obligations, if indeed it were to be objectively established that Iran is breaching these obligations. At least as long as the NPT maintains a sense of credibility.

But imagine the blow to the credibility of the NPT and indeed to international law in general if the US or Israel or both were to launch a war against Iran to destroy nuclear facilities that are recognised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), ostensibly in the name of enforcing respect for international law.

Even if the IAEA were to establish that Iran had diverted nuclear material to military use, a violation of the NPT treaty, this in itself does not justify war against Iran.

The use of force by the US against a fellow UN member will have to be legally justified. And under international law it can only be justified in two cases: First, when used in self-defence. But the argument of self-defence requires a threat that is imminent and leaving no time for reflection.

No one can convincingly argue that Iran poses an imminent threat to the US. And not even the twisted logic used by the Bush administration to claim that it had a right of pre-emptive defence, can remedy the defect in the self-defence argument.

The second case of justifiable use of force is when resort to force is authorised by the UN Security Council. But such authorisation can only be accorded if it was found that Iran posed a threat to peace because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. There are many states that have developed nuclear weapons or pursuing the capacity to do it; yet they are not considered a threat to peace.

Indeed, Israel, the leading advocate for war against Iran, is a nuclear power itself that has steadily refused to allow international inspection of its nuclear facilities.

But you would be hard pressed to find someone in the influential American media even suggesting that an Israel armed with nuclear weapons, given its record of repeated assaults against its neighbours, is the real threat to peace in the region.

Still, it is remarkable that the American defence and intelligence establishment has reached the conclusion that war against Iran is impractical and likely to bring about that which it seeks to prevent. Former CIA director General Michael Hayden was recently quoted in the press as saying that during the Bush administration. “When we talked about this in the government, the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent — an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret.”

Nonetheless, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, described as the most militaristic candidate on Iran, continues to advocate an all-out war against Iran including a ground invasion to try to stop it from developing nuclear weapons. Typical of the Santorum logic, his plan for invading Iran would not constitute war against a sovereign country. It would be, he said, an operation designed to “prevent war”.

It is worth noting here that Santorum is defending his indefensible logic as part of his overall identification with the hardliners in Israel. In fact, Santorum’s recent statement that there were no Palestinians in the West Bank, only Israelis, went beyond the claims of the most dogmatic hardliners in Israel.

The public relations campaign for war against Iran is starting to acquire an eerie resemblance to the one that made the war against Iraq possible. It is fuelled by disregard for international law, a low priority for the role of diplomacy, dismissal of inconvenient facts, and a disturbing accommodation of Israeli militaristic designs in the region. Furthermore, the covert war of subversion inside Iran and the growing sanctions suggest that the undeclared goal in Iran is regime change.


Adel Safty is author of From Camp David to the Gulf (Montreal); Democracy and Governance (Istanbul); Leadership and Democracy (New York); Might Over Right: How the Zionists Took Over Palestine (England).