Iran And International Law: What Mitt and Barack Need to Consider


This past week was the U.N. General Assembly meeting and the biggest news story to come out of that meeting concerned the address given by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, along with his now notorious bomb drawing. The bomb sketch was a reference to the rumors, still denied by Iran and its President Ahmadinejad, that Iran is constructing a nuclear weapon. On Friday, the Washington Post published an editorial by Jeffrey H. Smith, former GC of the CIA under President Clinton, and John B. Bellinger, legal advisor to the National Security Council and the State Dept. under President George W. Bush, concerning the legality under international law of a potential use of military force on Iran by the United States.

First, under the U.N. Charter, member states may only use force against another nation if authorized by the Security Council or in self defense against an armed attack. The two authors note that most international lawyers agree that the latter provision includes the threat of an attack. This blogger, however, notes that “most” is a very relative term, especially in relation to the nationality (i.e Europe, or the United States) of these lawyers. Examples of self defense include President George W. Bush’s invocation of the provision to invade Afghanistan after 9/11. Last year, the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force in Libya.

The use of force against Iran in a preemptive strike would be best authorized by a U.N. Security Council Resolution. For either President Obama or President Romney, the fact that China and Russia sit on that Council provides a huge hurdle to overcome. To act unilaterally against Iran would bring back the vestiges of the outcry over the U.S.’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. Back then, many other nations, even some of the United States’ allies, believed President Bush violated international law with the use of military force. Based on that precedent, the editorial authors believe that both Obama and Romney must explain a “clear legal basis for a military strike…and how using force against Iran would be justified under international law and under what circumstances.” The authors do note that the United States has long maintained the right to take unilateral and preemptive action to prevent an attack on this nation.


Now comes the biggest questions for our Commander in Chief:

Does a preemptive attack against Iran fall under the self defense provision?

Does international law and the international community’s opinion really matter when it comes to protecting our nation?

Are we going to fall into another “WMD” trap?

SOURCES: The Washington Post, Zameer36


  1. The questions posed here are quite similar to those posed to the U.S. in 2003. In 2003, the claim of self-defense was somewhat easier to rely upon, occurring in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Today, after a decade of unwanted war, many Americans will stand strongly against more U.S. military action in Iran. However, should the Iranian government develop nuclear weapons, I would not want to be the U.S. President who feared violating international law and thus did nothing. The U.S. must validate the rumors posed by the Israeli Prime Minister, but upon any likelihood of a nuclear bomb threat, I think it would be better to be safe than sorry. To address Andrew’s questions, I think international law is always important and deserves respect from our country at all times. This is why Andrew’s Washington Post source claims, “Presidents who have authorized military actions have generally tried to demonstrate that they are permissible under international law.” The source also says, “The United States has long maintained the right, under international law, to take unilateral, preemptive action to prevent an attack on the nation.” Regarding a preemptive attack on Iran, whether or not the Security Council grants permission and despite the skepticism of the self-defense exception, I feel (as of now anyway) that Obama or Romney will have to be proactive. I stress that I do not want to see the U.S. in war, but we must take the necessary precautions to prevent potential attacks. Ideally, these rumors truly are just rumors, and there will be no need for preemptive military action, but should it be discovered that Iran is building nuclear weapons, I expect our Commander in Chief to act accordingly.

  2. I just want to clarify something from my previous comment. I did not mean that the U.S. claimed it was acting in self-defense during its invasion in 2003. The U.S. has conceded that it was not acting in self-defense. What I meant was that to the general public, the feeling of acting in self-defense would have been more understandable in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. However, the questions posed to the U.S. today regarding Iran are still similar to those from 2003 and revolve around whether the U.S. would be violating international law upon a preemptive attack on Iran. That being said, the U.S. could attempt to justify a potential invasion on numerous grounds, self-defense not needing to be one of them. The U.S. could look to the Security Council, or could act as it did in 2003 and search for Iranian violations of UN General Assembly Resolutions that not only justify, but compel a response. Sorry for the confusion.

  3. In the event that Iran violates a U.N. General Assembly Resolution it would definitely be acceptable for the U.S. to justify any action concerning Iran. I agree with Patrick and Andrew that this is very reminiscent of the action that the U.S. took with Iraq in 2003 in regards to the legality under international law in pursing a pre-emptive “self-defense” strategy. It would be especially important in today’s context for the U.S. to make sure before they take action that they are not violating international law. The law is clear that self-defense is only warranted in response to an “armed attack”, however if Iran is found to violate an international agreement, then the U.S. would have more support legally to take action pre-emptively. This time around I fear that any action we do take would come under more scrutiny from the international community in comparison with our action taken in 2003 considering the invasion of Iraq, because it followed 9/11. If we do not take into account the international community’s view on the situation we jeopardize our international relationships as well as our overall respect in the community. Hopefully during the foreign policy debate this issue comes up and the candidates will share their views on these issues. It will be interesting to see how they weigh international law in determining their foreign policy issues, and if they agree a decade later that a pre-emptive “self-defense” action is warranted.

  4. In order to not repeat the same mistakes as the Bush administration, the President must be absolutely certain that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Nothing less than clear documentary proof of an Iranian nuclear weapons program would be acceptable. With that being said, if this threshold is reached then the United States would be in a good position to make the argument for a preemptive strike on Iran to the international community. I have always thought that the best course of conduct would be to let Iran develop nuclear weapons if they so choose. The threat of assured destruction of their nation if they ever were to use such a weapon should keep them from using it. Just as the United States and the Soviet Union never fired a nuclear missile at one another out of fear of retaliation, the same would happen if Iran also developed a nuclear bomb. Attacking Iran would also likely give rise to more terrorist attacks on the United States. To sum up, while the Unites States would be justified in launching a preemptive strike on Iran as long as clear documentary proof of an Iranian nuclear weapons program was established, they are better served by letting Iran develop nuclear weapons because of the threat of assured destruction were Iran ever to use them.

  5. I do think that a preemptive attack against Iran would fall under the self-defense provision, as the provision includes the threat of an attack. However, I think the fact that it is Israel who will be claiming the preemptive attack as self defense complicates the matter – in Israel’s eyes (rightly so based on Israel’s past history of wars with their neighbors) there is always the threat of an attack. Therefore, if Israel claiming self-defense in the form of a preemptive attack is going to pass muster in the eyes of other nations, I think there needs to be some proof of the threat of an attack from Iran. However, I do not think international law or the international community’s opinion matters to the US (once we are out of an election year), as the US will do what it thinks is necessary to protect our nation (and our allies). While I think it is possible that all of the Israel-Iran pressure could lead the US to fall into another WMD situation, I think the cost of that might be outweighed by the benefits, in that if Iran does have nuclear weapons, the likelihood of them using those weapons against Israel is extremely high.

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