What Is a Rogue State?

Donald Trump and Mohammad bin Salman (White House)

by Paul R. Pillar

The concept of a rogue state (or outlaw state, or any equivalent term) cannot just refer to a state pursuing interests that the United States does not happen to like or identify with. States must be expected to pursue their interests, and every state on the globe has at least some interests that differ from those of the United States. Rather, rogue or outlaw behavior has to do with how a state pursues its interests. To be a rogue means the use of methods contrary to accepted standards of international behavior and contrary to international law. It means cheating or reneging. It often means the use of violent methods when peaceful ones are available.

The Trump administration, notwithstanding its recent declaration of a cold war with China (which is too large to be dismissed as a rogue) or the longstanding outlaw behavior of North Korea (whose dictator has become Donald Trump’s latest love interest), has depicted Iran as the preeminent rogue state. That depiction makes especially interesting the upshot of the latest contest between the United States and Iran.

That contest took place before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled unanimously in favor of Iran in a suit in which Iran called for an end to U.S. sanctions that prevent shipment to Iran of humanitarian goods, including food, medicine, and aircraft parts needed to keep passenger planes safe. Iran argued that the sanctions violate, among other things, a U.S.-Iranian friendship treaty from 1955, a treaty that both sides have invoked from time to time. The U.S. response was a declaration from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the United States was terminating the treaty.

Compliance with rulings of the ICJ is supposed to be mandatory, although the court has no means of enforcement. Maybe Trump is taking a cue from Andrew Jackson, whose portrait he has hung in the Oval Office, about Chief Justice John Marshall having made a decision in the U.S. Supreme Court and Jackson purportedly saying “now let him enforce it.” Pompeo claimed that the ICJ should not have jurisdiction in the present case because the United States was acting on behalf of national security—the same rationale the administration invoked in flouting the rules of the World Trade Organization when it imposed steel and aluminum tariffs on the likes of Canada. The timing of Pompeo’s statement, however—coming after the ICJ’s ruling—suggests that the administration would have been happy to accept the court’s jurisdiction if the ruling had gone the other way.

The most important observation about this whole episode is that the administration’s pouty response was to Iran taking a peaceful action in an international court, an action that followed both the procedures and the substance of international law. There is certainly nothing roguelike in what Iran was doing. It is the United States, not Iran, that is saying that it will dispense with international law, standards, rules, and peaceful settlement of disputes and will use whatever methods it wants in pursuing its campaign of hostility against another state.

Other U.S. Responses

This case is not the only recent international legal proceeding in which the Trump administration has said that it will take its ball and go home. National Security Advisor John Bolton stated last week that the administration was withdrawing from a protocol to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in response to a suit brought to the ICJ by Palestine, which alleges that the United States violated the convention when it moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

The U.S. sanctions that cut off humanitarian shipments to Iran violate not only that 1955 friendship treaty but also, even more clearly, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and passed the council unanimously. The Trump administration and other opponents of the JCPOA take a very fluid approach to UN Security Council resolutions. They have placed much emphasis, for example, on a clause in that same Resolution 2231 that refers to Iran’s missile activity and is only hortatory. But they say nothing similar about the firm obligations that the Trump administration has violated and that the other six parties to the JCPOA, including Iran, have so far observed.

The administration’s playing fast and loose with international agreements puts into perspective, by the way, some of the other arguments that opponents of the JCPOA have long used. Brian Hook, who heads the administration’s task force on promoting hostility toward Iran, justifies the reneging on the JCPOA by saying that “the deal is not legally binding…it’s not an agreement…it’s a plan of action.” If that were so, then why all the storm and stress over the “sunset” clauses that place expiration dates on some of the provisions in the JCPOA? After all, if nothing in the agreement were binding, Iran could feel just as free as the Trump administration has felt in blowing off its commitments whenever it wants, and the expiration dates would be meaningless anyway. Many of the JCPOA’s opponents also have complained that the agreement did not take the form of a treaty (which would never have passed a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate). But the administration’s latest cavalier trashing of international treaties that date to the 1950s and 1960s suggests that, if the administration’s behavior were to be the standard for handling treaties, this detail about the diplomatic art form would have made no difference at all.

The Rogue Across the Gulf

All this comes amid headlines about alleged outlaw behavior by Iran’s principal regional rival, Saudi Arabia. Turkey says that it believes that journalist and part-time U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul after he went there to obtain some paperwork prior to getting married. You don’t need to read the Vienna Convention to know that murdering someone in one of your consulates is not what diplomatic missions are supposed to be used for. It is hard to imagine behavior any more roguish than that. If the Turkish belief—which is still unproven, though at least as plausible as any other explanation for Khashoggi’s disappearance—is true, it is only a more extreme instance of a pattern of roguish behavior by Saudi Arabia under its current leadership. That behavior has included aerial bombardment and blockade against a neighboring state to generate the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and kidnapping the prime minister of another regional state to try to foment a governmental crisis there.

If one wants to accuse another state of being a rogue or outlaw, one should always be prepared to suggest another method—a more respectable, peaceful, and legal method—that state should have used to pursue its objectives. Remember, all states have interests to pursue, and it is the means used to pursue them that define what is rogue and what is not. To Saudi Arabia one might suggest, for example, that if the regime didn’t like, for whatever reason, what Jamal Khashoggi had been writing, then it should have used non-violent discourse and debate, and whatever propaganda channels it may have, to say why it thought Khashoggi was wrong. But if one doesn’t like Iran bringing a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice, what alternative method—a presumably better, non-rogue method—could one suggest for Iran to pursue its interest in obtaining needed food, medicine, and airplane parts?

The absence of an answer to that latter question reveals the administration’s campaign of hostility toward Iran to be motivated not by Iran being a rogue but instead by other reasons.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. The Ayatollah regime is a rogue regime in Iran. They are an inhumane regime. They have imposed financial sanctions on Iranians for 39 years.

    Just because a US administration is odd, it does not justify any support for the Ayatollah regime.

  2. The concept of the USA as rogue state came to mind after Sec. of State Pompeo reacted to the ICJ decision by withdrawing from the US-Iran treaty from the 50’s.

  3. John Bolton seems to be calling the shots, and one can doubt if he even tells the President. Bolton is unchangeable-and unelected. The responses have to be directed against the President. He doesn’t like being blamed and will react—somehow! Getting re-elected in 2020 will be the big thing for him. Could we claim that he will be too old and has forgotten how to think?

  4. In light of the missing Saudi journalist, Khashoggi, and Saudi atrocities in Yemen, Trump said today “Saudi is not a rogue state and the US will continue with selling $100b worth of arms to Saudi because American jobs are very important”. Congratulations America we are making great progress!

  5. It is indeed very original of of Mr Mostofi to sound like a broken record and repeat the same mantra on every single article on this site. On has to look at his comments and easily figure it out that he has no rational judgement and only cares for what he get paid to repeat the same message on and on! There’s no author of any stripe whom he has not objected (without a rational argument) here!! He has only one mission as it appears very crystal clear that he has been given a job to write very moronic comments on every single occasion regardless who and what’s been written about Iran. Has anyone else has noticed his miserable attempts at repeating his imbecilic drivels?? Surely there are many of us who could think for themselves and see his malign approach here but one must be a total sellout to think he could fool others in thinking he is real or even has a functioning brain cell left in his skull! I leave it to the rest of the commentators to pay attention to his worthless comments and see how money can not buy everybody’s mind and soul!.

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