Major US-UK Tiff Over Legality of Iran Strike

Amidst reports that Great Britain has denied the US military use of important British bases for an assault against Iran, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters on Friday that whenever the DOD considers military action “we do it within the legal confines…of this country.” The US has been contemplating military action against Iran’s nuclear program since at least 2006, but the legality of a unilateral attack has evidently not been a major consideration in Washington. It should be, as should the likely tactical complications of British (and potentially broader) non-cooperation.

In dramatic contrast to apparent US assumptions of legality concerning preventative military action against Iran is the statement the Guardian obtained from a UK government source that “’The UK would be in breach of international law if it facilitated what amounted to a pre-emptive strike on Iran.’” In fact, reportedly based on legal advice from the UK’s attorney general, the UK has denied the US use of important British bases on Ascension Island, Cyprus, and Diego Garcia. The UK position should be of legal interest in Washington because Great Britain would not be the attacking nation, merely a government assisting the attacker. If UK legal instincts are so extraordinarily cautious about even passively aiding an attacker, one wonders how the US, in the role of the attacker, could muster such confidence about being on legal solid ground.

Most of all US resort to force over the past 20-odd years has been in response to direct attacks on the United States or US interests (post-9/11 anti-terrorist military action aimed against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, cruise missile attacks against al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan in response to the East Africa embassy bombings and the attack against the USS Cole, etc.). Even with the iffy — and later debunked — Bush Administration case for war against Iraq, the US maintained that by sustaining a supposed arsenal of WMD, Iraq was in violation of international law tied to red lines laid down in UNSC resolutions linked to Chapter VII enforcement (use of force) concerning very specific requirements levied on Iraq in the immediate wake of the 1991 Gulf War.

So, even in an alleged worst case scenario in which, for sake of argument, Iran was believed to be in the midst of developing nuclear weapons that it planned to meld to an enhanced ballistic missile capability, that in and of itself would not constitute a direct attack on the US (out of range) or US interests (American bases or embassies in the Middle East/South Asia region). Indeed, the presumed threat posed by any such Iranian capabilities primarily would be against US regional allies such as Israel, most notably, and potentially others such as the GCC states, Turkey and so on. It has, however, not been historic US policy to launch preventative attacks against assumed — not active — threats against its allies.

On another, tactical level, the reported UK refusal of basing cooperation could be quite significant with respect to any US attack against Iran (even more so if other key US NATO allies were to follow suit). The potential loss of transit, staging, refueling and basing rights through the UK, Cyprus and particularly the basing of US heavy bombers at Diego Garcia, could complicate considerably the US ability to amass desired support for an attack on Iran (or sustain the preferred pace of military operations) in the robust manner outlined in the leaked 2006 US military operations plan reportedly briefed to President Bush.

Thus, the tactical problems associated with this apparent UK decision might give pause to US policymakers mulling over any massive knockout blow against Iran’s greatly dispersed nuclear infrastructure, as well as the many and varied Iranian military assets available to defend it.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. “If UK legal instincts are so extraordinarily cautious about even passively aiding an attacker, one wonders how the US, in the role of the attacker, could muster such confidence about being on legal solid ground.”

    Because we’re the U.S.

    We are exaceptional and can do anything we want to and since we have the biggest, most powerful military the world has ever seen we have grown arrogant and careless about what anybody else thinks.

  2. The Lion,

    The Iraq war was illegal – that is why I placed the word “iffy”, used in the text of the article, in quotes. And, why I followed by saying that Lavrov called it illegal.

    The point I was making (with some sarcasm) is that journalists should refrain from the political “semantic gymnastics” and instead practice, as a minimum, some subjective neutrality – even if objective is not achievable.

    The theater of the absurd, and the pretend appeal to “legality” that is being promulgated is cynical.

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