Can International Institutions Stop a U.S.-Iran War?

Alexandros Michailidis via Shutterstock

by Parisa Zangeneh

The similarities between the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and today’s rhetoric and events triggering Iran-U.S. hostilities are startling.

The March 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance, was premeditated. Preparations for attacking Iraq had been underway for months prior to the actual start of military activities. By February 2003, the United States had positioned 100,000 troops in Kuwait, waiting for an attack to begin, and hawkish rhetoric and allegations had been made as early as September 2002. According to U.S. rhetoric and subsequent state practice, the use of force could be used in a manner envisioned by the United Nations Charter—or not, and U.S. cooperation with the United Nations Security Council was optional, at best. “We’re working with our friends and allies right now on how best to get a resolution out of the United Nations,” former President George Bush was quoted as saying. “‘It would be helpful to get one out. It’s not necessary, as far as I’m concerned.”

In the run-up to the invasion, the United States sought to justify its behavior by claiming that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons and that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda, both later shown to be false claims. Meanwhile, American and British politicians and lawyers attempted to legalize the plans for invasion. In considering the imminent armed attack, Oxford law professor Vaughan Lowe made a critical point: that policy makers should not confuse the aim of regime change, or elimination of Saddam Hussein, with the aim of nuclear disarmament. He also pointed out that at the time, there was no precedent in international law for using armed force to facilitate regime change.

Recently, in a disturbing parallel, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted to convince Congress that Iran has ties to al-Qaeda that predate the attacks of September 11, 2001, despite the fact that the 9/11 Commission did not find evidence of Iran’s knowledge of al-Qaeda’s planning of the September 11 attacks. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has sent thousands of American troops to the Middle East, which may suggest preparation for the potential use or threat of armed activities or small-scale attacks. However, despite these and other aggravating acts occurring in the Persian Gulf, it is absolutely critical to avoid armed confrontation of any sort between the United States and Iran. Moreover, it is absolutely critical to avoid a repeat of the 2003 invasion, which the International Commission of Jurists has called “a war of aggression on Iraq.” The utility of international institutions and possible mechanisms to prevent the hostilities is a matter of urgency.

According to the United States, Iran allegedly attacked vessels passing through the Persian Gulf and then subsequently downed an American drone that may have been in Iranian airspace, a fact that has implications for the legality of potential uses of force in the future. Additionally, the United States apparently launched a cyberattack against Iran. There have been no casualties on either side.

The United States may attempt to engage in armed activities in Iran that may include a range of potential modes of attack of varying severity, which may pose a risk to the maintenance of international peace and security. The risk may be exacerbated if the United States attempts to launch a full-scale invasion or effect regime change. Moreover, the range of international mechanisms available to resolve disputes and to ease mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear program is limited, especially since the United States has withdrawn from the UN-endorsed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The current impasse between the United States and Iran, which has been heightened by tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, may have been avoided if the United States had not withdrawn from the JCPOA and if a clear framework for dialogue, cooperation, rapprochement, and nuclear-related disputes had been retained. Unfortunately, that’s no longer an option. Had the JCPOA framework remained in place, it may have provided a means to de-escalate the current situation and to resolve underlying issues related to Iran’s nuclear program. The dispute resolution mechanism envisaged by the JCPOA would have allowed the Joint Commission to address allegations of Iranian violations of the JCPOA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The JCPOA provides that if the dispute resolution process fails to reach a suitable conclusion, the complaining participant can either cease performing under the JCPOA, in whole or in part, and/or notify the UN Security Council, which was designated as the main mechanism to resolve a dispute regarding non-cooperation.

In scrapping the JCPOA, the United States has lost a U.S.-designed apparatus whose purpose was to control and contain Iran’s uranium enrichment program, in partnership with the other participants, the European Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations, and Iran. At this point, in order to resume monitoring and investigations activities in Iran, which may be far reduced in scale and ease, the only option, save resurrecting the JCPOA, is for the UN Security Council to act under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to create a Special Commission for this purpose. Such a commission to monitor Iranian nuclear activities could reduce tensions between the United States and Iran, but the United States might also disregard any progress made if it were determined to start a war, as was apparently the case in 2003.

However, a UN Special Commission designed to monitor and investigate nuclear weapons would not be equipped to handle claims and counter-claims of attacks, armed activities, and potential acts of aggression. Since the United States is a permanent member of the Security Council, it may be necessary for it to establish an independent, impartial mechanism to start an inquiry into the attacks on the tankers in the Persian Gulf and the American drone, which may have been in Iranian airspace or in international waters/airspace. An alternative arrangement may be necessary, such as the joint investigation team led by the Netherlands in the case of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. It may be advantageous to establish an independent investigative body to hear and adjudicate on claims. The United States has apparently already asked the Security Council to convene a meeting on Iran.

Both Iran and the United States may apply to the International Court of Justice to institute proceedings, but neither Iran nor the United States has recognized the Court’s jurisdiction as compulsory, though a special agreement may be made recognizing the Court’s jurisdiction for specific purposes that the two determine.

There are too many similarities between recent events and the U.S. rhetoric and actions prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq to comfortably rule out a potentially large-scale, armed confrontation between Iran and the United States. To prevent this from becoming reality, the international community—including the United Nations—must do everything in its power to prevent either country from committing an act that will lead to this result. President Trump has tweeted about the general principle of proportionality in jus ad bellum considerations, which may indicate some respect for international law. Further, Iran and the United States must both do their utmost to respect each other as well as their commitments to international law and the maintenance of international peace and security.

Parisa Zangeneh is a lawyer and is currently a consultant at the Cornell Center for the Death Penalty Worldwide.

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  1. Parisa Zangeneh

    There are other and older analogues – one would be Italy’s war against Ethiopia. The Emperor Haile Selassie made an impassioned speech at the League of Nations against the rape of his country.

    The White Christians listened politely to the Black Christian and dismissed him and his cause.

    A few years later, their own world was destroyed – especially Italy – during World War II. They deserved that – God saw fit to punish them in whole.

    An even earlier analogue would be the ultimatum that Austro-Hungarian Empire issued against Serbia – which ignited World War I.

    In both cases, it was the powerful that initiated the hostilities and lived to regret it.

    In sum, no, international institutions cannot do anything to prevent the war.

    If US initiates the war, the only way to stop it would be immediate impeachment of US President for attacking Iran. That step will not be taken since it will plunge the United States into deep – near civil-war – situation.

    The only silver lining that I see in this confrontation is the exposure of the Protestant Christianity’s malignant influence on US Foreign Policy and on the Global Security.

  2. The only solution is to not have the Ayatollahs be taken to represent Iran. There are plenty of better educated and more trustworthy Iranians available. It is the fault of United States that it does not consult these Iranians and create an alternative solution. The fact of the matter is, that they want to keep these monsters in Iran for very obvious geopolitical reasons.

  3. Basically Trump is unstoppable, because of U.S. low level of education and the spineless G.O.P. morphed in a yes-men structure. Trump with Bolton and Pompi will ignore and won’t comply with any unfavourable UN resolution. Only Europe is valid, but the financial organization’s officials (bankers, CEOs) are weak and will set before any U.S. threat over them. Let’s see if the European leaders will finally be able to establish parallel institutions to allow Iran to bypass the worst financial repression by the U.S. Of course China and Russia are an asset but with limited efficacy because of the world extremely intertwined commercial structure.


    European Central Banks could issue Iran credit to purchase things – to be repaid in crude oil.

    They did not do that.

    The emissaries of Japan, France, England, and Germany to Iran could have brought with themselves a plane load of medical supplies – say chemotherapy drugs, stents, etc. – as a sign of good-will and humanitarian concern.

    They did not do that.

    They could announce a program aide to civilian sectors of Iranian economy: power generation, irrigation, agriculture, medicine, etc. more than a year ago.

    They did not.

    They were in this with US – I did not expect anything from such satraps and Germany and Japan – but France and UK and Sweden could have been much more proactive.

    Until the last moment, just like the Oslo-process – they tried to extract the last ounce of concession out of Iran.

    I must mention France as the most dishonorable in all of this.

  5. ARHAZIAN (or is it “Zahra-ian” ?)

    Unlike my name which is real (google “Moji Agha” to find my mini-bio in “LA Progressive”) you are hiding behind a pseudonym.

    Per our exchanges in other recent Iran-related Lobe Log post, I find it fascinating that you keep avoiding, purposefully (?) ANY mention of Israel or Zionism in instigating Trump’s unilateral abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, bringing back savage sanctions, and now economic (and military) war against Iran–per the continuation of the savage colonial Doctrine of Discovery, about which I leaned a lot more when I participated in the Standing Rock uprising in North Dakota in the last two months of 2016.

    Instead you keep focusing on “white Protestant Christianity’s malignant influence on US Foreign Policy and on the Global Security,” and not, for example, the role of Christian Zionists (like Mike Pompeo) in such colonial acts barbaric savagery.

    We know that Israel has spies in Khamenei’s “house” (bayt) and in the Revolutionary Guards, and in the Basij Militia–and in other “revolutionary” organs of “internal despotism” in Iran.

    Why are you not mentioning the words Israel, and Zionism in your writings, and apparently instead you focus on the (“external colonialism”) white “Christian” barbarism?

    Is it because you know (and benefit from) the co-dependency, as “enemies,” of Khamenei (internal despotism) and Netanyahu (external colonialism) in the war-mongering conflict against Iran?

    Or are you an Israeli (under the cover of being an Iranian “revolutionary”) who cannot mention Israel, per the familiar “deflection” (propaganda) policy of the Zionists?

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