Over the next few months, debate will intensify over whether Congress should have a role in approving the use of military force against Iran. Lost in the debate will be an equally vital consideration: international law.
Even if Congress authorizes an attack, the action would in all likelihood still be unlawful. Striking Iran would only be legal if the UN Security Council authorizes it or if our resort to force represents a case of self-defense. Generally speaking, international law prohibits the unilateral use of force for purposes other than self-defense or in essence fighting off an “armed attack.” Absent UN approval, you cannot drop bombs on a country to punish it, disarm it, or send a message. Even threatening such action is illegal.
A similar opinion holds for the sanctions put on Iran by the U.S. International law prohibits the unilateral imposition of economic sanctions, especially when they cause harm to a civilian population. On Oct. 3, 2018, the International Court of Justice concluded that the sanctions imposed on Iran earlier that year by the Trump administration must in part be lifted. The impediments put against the importation of “foodstuffs,” “medicines” and equipment “necessary for the safety of civil aviation” could not stand. Our response was to ignore the ruling and in recent months to pile on more sanctions.
Admittedly, international law can be murky. Key concepts like “self-defense” and “armed attack” have been poorly demarcated. The point is that the terms of the debate in this country remain limited to an unconscionable degree. It is not enough to wonder whether a military strike on Iran would be counterproductive or destabilizing. It is not enough to demand that Congress first approve such a strike. It is not enough to debate whether sanctions work. The deeper question of lawfulness must be considered as well.
On June 27, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine stated on the Senate floor that President Trump could launch an “offensive war” against Iran if he had authorization from Congress. What is Kaine thinking? Such action, even if constitutional, would comprise what the Nuremberg Charter calls “aggressive war” and classifies as “the supreme international crime.”
We often hear that in contrast to Russia and China, the U.S. abides by international law. Our relationship with other countries is “rules-based.” Such claims are not just self-serving. When it comes to the use of force, they are fraudulent. If anything, the U.S. abides by a much older dictum: might makes right.