Why not get the Law and Politics Right in Iran?

23 Mar


In his important article in the New York Times, March 17, 2012, James Risen summarized the consensus of the intelligence community as concluding that Iran abandoned its program to develop nuclear weapons in 2003, and that no persuasive evidence exists that it has departed from this decision. It might have been expected that such news based on the best evidence that billions spent to get the most reliable possible assessments of such sensitive security issues would produce a huge sigh of relief in Washington, but on the contrary it has been totally ignored, including by the highest officers in the government. The president has not even bothered to acknowledge this electrifying conclusion that should have put the brakes on what appears to be a slide toward a disastrous regional war. We must ask ‘why’ such a prudent and positive course of action has not been adopted, or at least explored,


Given that the American debate proceeds on the basis of the exact opposite assumption– as if Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is a virtual certainty.  This contrary finding that it is a high probability that iran gave up its quest of nuclear weapons almost a decade ago is quite startling. Listening to the Republican presidential candidates or even to President Obama makes it still seem as if Iran is without doubt hell bent on having nuclear weapons at the earliest possible time. With such a misleading approach the only question that seems worth asking is whether to rely on diplomacy backed by harsh sanctions to achieve the desired goal or that only an early attack to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.


It seems perverse that this public debate on policy toward Iran should be framed in such a belligerent and seemingly wrongheaded manner. After all the United States was stampeded into a disastrous war against Iraq nine years ago on the basis of deceptive reports about its supposed stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, trumped up exile allegations, and media hype. I would have assumed that these bad memories would make Washington very cautious about drifting toward war with Iran, a far more dangerous enemy than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It would seem that at present the politicians are distrustful of reassuring intelligence reports and completely willing to go along with the intelligence community when it counsels war as ‘a slam dunk.’


Reinforcing this skepticism about Iran’s nuclear intentions is a realistic assessment of the risk posed in the unlikely event that the intelligence community’s consensus is wrong, and Iran after all succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons. As former heads of Mossad and others have pointed out the existential threat to Israel even then would still be extremely low. It would be obvious that Iran’s few bombs could never be used against Israel or elsewhere without producing an annihilating response. There is no evidence that Iran has any disposition to commit national suicide.


There is a further troubling aspect of how this issue is being addressed. Even in the Risen article it is presumed that if the evidence existed that Iran possesses a nuclear weapons program, a military attack would be a permissible option. Such a presumption is based on the irrelevance of international law to a national decision to attack a sovereign state, and a silent endorsement of ‘aggressive war’ that had been criminalized back in 1945 as the principal conclusion of the Nuremberg Judgment.


This dubious thinking has gone unchallenged in the media, in government pronouncements, and even in diplomatic posturing. We need to recall that at the end of World War II when the UN was established states agreed in the UN Charter to give up their military option except in clear instances of self-defense. To some extent over the years this prohibition has been eroded, but in the setting of Iran policy it has been all but abandoned without even the pressure of extenuating circumstances.


Of course, it would be unfortunate if Iran acquires nuclear weapons given the instability of the region, and the general dangers associated with their spread. But no international law argument or precedent is available to justify attacking a sovereign state because it goes nuclear. After all, Israel became a stealth nuclear weapons state decades ago without a whimper of opposition from the West, and the same goes for India, Pakistan, and even North Korea’s acquisition of weapons produced only a

muted response that soon dropped from sight.


There are better policy options that are worth exploring, which uphold international law and have a good chance of leading to regional stability. The most obvious option is containment that worked for decades against an expansionist Soviet Union with a gigantic arsenal of nuclear weapons. A second option would be to establish a nuclear weapons free zone for the Middle East, an idea that has been around for years, and enjoys the endorsement of most governments in the region, including Iran. Israel might seem to have the most to lose by a nuclear free zone in the Middle East because it alone currently possesses nuclear weapons, but Israel would benefit immensely by the reduction in regional tensions and probable economic and diplomatic side benefits, particularly if accompanied by a more constructive approach to resolving the conflict with the Palestinian people. The most ambitious option, given political credibility by President Obama in his Prague speech of 2009 expressing a commitment to a world without nuclear weapons, would be to table a proposal for complete nuclear disarmament on a step-by-step basis. Each of these approaches seem far preferable to what is now planned, are prudent, accord with common sense, show respect for international law, a passion for the peaceful resolution of conflict, and at minimum deserve to be widely discussed and appraised.


As it is there is no legal foundation in the Nonproliferation Treaty or elsewhere for the present reliance on threat diplomacy in dealing with Iran. These threats violate Article 2(4) of the UN Charter that wisely prohibits not only uses of force but also threats to use force. Iran diplomacy presents an odd case, as political real politik and international law clearly point away from the military option, and yet the winds of war are blowing ever harder. Perhaps even at this eleventh hour our political leaders can awake to realize anew that respect for international law provides the only practical foundation for a rational and sustainable foreign policy in the 21st century.

11 Responses to “Why not get the Law and Politics Right in Iran?”

  1. John Scales Avery March 23, 2012 at 11:20 pm #

    I think that your article, like many that you have written, is extraordinarily important and
    clear. I am attaching my own article on the same topic.

    With admiration and best wishes,



    Iran has an ancient and beautiful civilization, which dates back to 7,000 BC, when the city of Susa was founded. Some of the earliest writing that we know of, dating from from approximately 3,000 BC, was used by the Elamite civilization near to Susa. Today’s Iranians are highly intelligent and cultured, and famous for their hospitality, generosity and kindness to strangers. Over the centuries, Iranians have made many contributions to science, art and literature, and for hundreds of years they have not attacked any of their neighbors. Nevertheless, for the last 90 years, they have been the victims of foreign attacks and interventions, most of which have been closely related to Iran’s oil and gas resources. The first of these took place in the period 1921-1925, when a British-sponsored coup overthrew the Qajar dynasty and replaced it by Reza Shah.
    Reza Shah (1878-1944) started his career as Reza Khan, an army officer. Because of his high intelligence he quickly rose to become commander of the Tabriz Brigade of the Persian Cossacks. In 1921, General Edmond Ironside, who commanded a British force of 6,000 men fighting against the Bolsheviks in northern Persia, masterminded a coup (financed by Britain) in which Reza Khan lead 15,000 Cossacks towards the capital. He overthrew the government, and became minister of war. The British government backed this coup because it believed that a strong leader was needed in Iran to resist the Bolsheviks. In 1923, Reza Khan overthrew the Qajar Dynasty, and in 1925 he was crowned as Reza Shah, adopting the name Pahlavi.
    Reza Shah believed that he had a mission to modernize Iran, in much the same way that Kamil Ata Turk had modernized Turkey. During his 16 years of rule in Iran, many roads were built, the Trans-Iranian Railway was constructed, many Iranians were sent to study in the West, the University of
    Tehran was opened, and the first steps towards industrialization were taken. However, Reza Shah’s methods were sometimes very harsh.
    In 1941, while Germany invaded Russia, Iran remained neutral, perhaps leaning a little towards the side of Germany. However, Reza Shah was suffciently critical of Hitler to offer safety in Iran to refugees from the Nazis. Fearing that the Germans would gain control of the Abadan oil fields, and
    wishing to use the Trans-Iranian Railway to bring supplies to Russia, Britain invaded Iran from the south on August 25, 1941. Simultaneously, a Russian force invaded the country from the north. Reza Shah appealed to Roosevelt for help, citing Iran’s neutrality, but to no avail. On September 17, 1941, he was forced into exile, and replaced by his son, Crown Prince Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Both Britain and Russia promised to withdraw from Iran as soon as the war was over. During the remainder of World War II, although the new Shah was nominally the ruler of Iran, the country was governed by the allied occupation forces.
    Reza Shah, had a strong sense of mission, and felt that it was his duty to modernize Iran. He passed on this sense of mission to his son, the young Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi . The painful problem of poverty was everywhere apparent, and both Reza Shah and his son saw modernization of Iran
    as the only way to end poverty.
    In 1951, Mohammad Mosaddegh became Prime Minister of Iran through democratic elections. He was from a highly-placed family and could trace his ancestry back to the shahs of the Qajar dynasty. Among the many reforms made by Mosaddegh was the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil
    Company’s possessions in Iran. Because of this, the AIOC (which later became British Petroleum), persuaded the British government to sponsor a secret coup that would overthrow Mosaddegh. The British asked US President Eisenhower and the CIA to join M16 in carrying out the coup, claiming
    that Mosaddegh represented a communist threat (a ludicrous argument, considering Mosaddegh’s aristocratic background). Eisenhower agreed to help Britain in carrying out the coup, and it took place in 1953. The Shah thus obtained complete power over Iran.
    The goal of modernizing Iran and ending poverty was adopted as an almost-sacred mission by the young Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and it was the motive behind his White Revolution in 1963, when much of the land belonging to the feudal landowners and the crown was distributed to landless villagers. However, the White Revolution angered both the traditional landowning class and the clergy, and it created fierce opposition. In dealing with this opposition, the Shahs methods were very harsh, just as his fathers had been. Because of alienation produced by his harsh methods, and because of the growing power of his opponents, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was
    overthrown in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The revolution of 1979 was to some extent caused by the British-American coup of 1953.
    One can also say that the westernization, at which both Shah Reza and his son aimed, produced an anti-western reaction among the conservative elements of Iranian society. Iran was “falling between two stools”, on the one hand western culture and on the other hand the country’s traditional culture. It seemed to be halfway between, belonging to neither. Finally in 1979 the Islamic clergy triumphed and Iran chose tradition.

    Meanwhile, in 1963 the US had secretly backed a military coup in Iraq that brought Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party to power. In 1979, when the western-backed Shah of Iran was overthrown, the United States regarded the fundamentalist Shi’ite regime that replaced him as a threat to supplies of oil from Saudi Arabia. Washington saw Saddam’s Iraq as a bulwark against the Shi’ite government of Iran that was thought to be threatening oil supplies from pro-American states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

    In 1980, encouraged to do so by the fact that Iran had lost its US backing, Saddam Hussein’s government attacked Iran. This was the start of a extremely bloody and destructive war that lasted for eight years, inflicting almost a million casualties on the two nations. Iraq used both mustard gas
    and the nerve gases Tabun and Sarin against Iran, in violation of the Geneva Protocol.

    The present attacks on Iran by Israel and the United States, both actual and threatened, have some similarity to the war against Iraq which was launched by the United States in 2003. In 2003, the attack was nominally motivated by the threat that nuclear weapons would be developed, but the
    real motive had more to do with a desire to control and exploit the petroleum resources of Iraq, and with Israel’s extreme nervousness at having a powerful and somewhat hostile neighbor. Similarly, hegemony over the huge oil and gas reserves of Iran can be seen as one the main reasons why the United States is presently demonizing Iran, and this is combined with Israel’s almost paranoid fear of a large and powerful Iran. Looking back on the “successful” 1953 coup against Mosaddegh, Israel and the United States perhaps feel that sanctions, threats, murders and other pressures can cause a regime change that will bring a more compliant government to power in Iran – a government that will accept US hegemony. But aggressive rhetoric, threats and provocations can escalate into full-scale war.
    I do not wish to say that Iran’s present government is without serious faults. However, any use of violence against Iran would be both insane and criminal. Why insane? Because the present economy of the US and the world cannot support another large-scale conflict; because the Middle East is already a deeply troubled region; and because it is impossible to predict the extent of a war which, if once started, might develop into World War III, given the fact that Iran is closely allied with both Russia and China. Why criminal? Because such violence would violate both the UN Charter and the Nuremberg Principles. There is no hope at all for the future unless we work for a peaceful world, governed by international law, rather than a fearful world where brutal power holds sway.
    1. Sir Percy Sykes, A History of Persia – 2nd edition, MacMillan, (1921).
    2. Paula K. Byers, Reza Shah Pahlavi, Encyclopedia of World Biography
    3. Roger Hoffman, The Origins of the Iranian Revolution, International
    A airs 56/4, 673-7, (Autumn 1980).
    4. Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power,
    Simon and Schuster, (1991).
    5. A. Sampson, The Seven Sisters: The Great Oil Companies of the World
    and How They Were Made, Hodder and Staughton, London, (1988).
    6. James Risen, Secrets of History: The C.I.A. in Iran, The New York
    Times, April 16, (2000).
    7. Mark Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne, Mohammad Mosaddegh and the
    1953 Coup in Iran, National Security Archive, June 22, (2004).
    8. K. Roosevelt, Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, McGraw-
    Hill, New York, (1979).
    9. E. Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions, Princeton University
    Press, Princeton, (1982).
    10. M.T. Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, Owl Books reprint edition, New York, (2002).
    11. J.M. Blair, The Control of Oil, Random House, New York, (1976).

  2. monalisa March 24, 2012 at 2:06 am #

    Dear Richard,

    thank you for your essay.

    What when the oil has reached a certain point – it isn’t a renewable energy-giver. If not already peak oil has been reached it soon will be and with more wars it goes much quicker.
    How long will the rest oil available ?
    And what then ?

    So to me it seems that Western politicans – and especially in the USA – are brainwashed by certain big companies respectively by some big “governmental agencies” (which maybe seek to “poliferate” themselves or already did it and want more!).
    These politicans are acting against any logic and against any known knowledge concerning ressources.
    With such a huge military and police apparatus as USA already has their energy consumation alone will have to be questioned – seems to me.
    Or should be questioned by their citizen.

    So war drums are very loud and facts are almost nile.
    Same game all over again !

    How silly and sad is this when politicans aren’t using their positions with more foresight and wisdom in accordance with already available scientific facts and in the interest of their own people.

    My concern are the children – the poorest victims !

    Take care of yourself

  3. Ray Joseph Cormier March 24, 2012 at 5:11 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    This latest article with it’s elegant but simple language, once again reflects your many years Life experience as a University Professor and International Law Scholar. I admire so much your writing skill. I will place a link to this article in my last writing effort since they do compliment each other.


    We do differ on one point. While you write “what appears to be a slide toward a disastrous regional war” in my view, if this slide to “regional war” continues unabated, in the fog of war it will quickly turn into the dreaded “Armageddon” a religious term for a secular world war involving all Nations in the end.

    Even the most extreme Atheists and simple minded people know the implications in the religious word Armageddon if it becomes reality in this non-religious world.


    • Ray Joseph Cormier March 24, 2012 at 7:51 am #

      There are many Times in our basic human nature as individuals, we feel alone as a voice crying in the wilderness. One cannot hold onto that deceptive feeling for too long after reading articles like yours and knowing there are many other people out there having Good Will and hope soon reappears, leaving no doubt the Universe is unfolding in the way that it should.

      After I made my comment here, I followed an email notice from a Blog I follow in addition to yours, having a video interview ‘Moyers and Company: Moving Beyond War”

      I immediately thought of your much earlier essay ‘WARFARE WITHOUT LIMITS: A DARKENING HUMAN HORIZON’ as they are related on a certain level.

      You may know Andrew Bacevich of Boston University as one being in Solidarity with our views, hopes and aspirations. I also recommend you subscribe and follow ‘Dandelion Salad’ the Blog making me aware of the discussion between Bill Moyers and Mr. Bacevich. I hope you find the Time to watch it with your busy schedule.


  4. rehmat1 March 24, 2012 at 5:50 am #

    Iran’s nuclear hoax is good for US and Israel

    An Israeli minister gloated recently that Israeli propaganda of Iran’s nuclear program being ‘existential threat’ has diverted world’s attention from Israel-Palestinian conflict. He was proven right during Obama-Bibi White House meeting on March 5, when both men only talked about Iran and Obama did not raise the illegal Jewish settlement as he did during his last year meeting with Benji Netanyahu.

    2012 being US election year, Bibi, has recreated his role as the ‘kingmaker’. US media had reported that Obama offered Bibi additional military aid (Israel receives $3 billion worth military aid each year) if Bibi promise not to ruin Obama’s victory by attacking Iran before November 3 presidential election.


  5. professionallegalnetwork July 4, 2012 at 1:40 am #

    Nice to visit this post. Great and fully discuss the topic Law and Politics Right in Iran. Discussion is very entrusting and meaningful. Nice post. Thanks for sharing.

    Professional Legal Network


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