by Ken Sehested
The dogs of war threatening full scale conflict between the US and Iran are straining their respective leashes. Iran openly admits that it shot down a US drone, claiming it was over Iranian territorial waters—by international law, extending 12 miles from a country’s coast line.
The US claims the drone was over international waters, doing so under the terms of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS). Complicating matters: Oman, across the Strait of Hormuz, also has legal claim to a 12-mile territorial sovereign claim. Yet at its narrowest point, the Strait of Hormuz is only 21 miles wide.
Understand, though, that neither the US nor Iran ratified the UNCLOS.
The international legal norms are tangled and in dispute, to such a degree that both the US and Iran can justify their respective claims, since the US is relying on the international custom known as the “doctrine of innocent passage or transit passage.” (And that’s a whole ‘nuther complicated story. For more background on these matters, see Susan Simpson, “Is the Strait of Hormuz Governed by Treaty or by Customary International Law?” The View From LL2.)
Adding yet more threat, on 11 June the US joint chiefs of staff posted its updated “Nuclear Operations” rules of engagement which makes it easier to undertake limited nuclear strikes, saying “Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.” But within a week the Pentagon removed that document from its website. Now it’s available only through a restricted access electronic library.
Why has this narrow waterway been such a flashpoint for US military vigilance? Nearly a quarter of the world’s oil is shipped through this channel. The US will soon be a net exporter of fossil fuels (for the first time in 70 years). But control of this essential resource exerts a profound influence on US foreign policy. Remember, it was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who said, "Oil is much too important a commodity to be left in the hands of the Arabs."
The takeaway from all this? US citizens should be very wary of any US rationale for an attack on Iran. Given our history—such as the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, where President Johnson manufactured a non-existent strike by North Vietnam on a US naval vessel, the incident that launched the Vietnam War; and the fabricated stories of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, which launched the Iraq War—we must demand a higher, more stringent bar of evidence for any attack on Iran. (Not to mention that our Constitution requires an act of Congress to declare war.)
[For a faith based statement opposing any US attack on Iran, see “We Say No, Again: Baiting Iran toward a dangerous collision”]
The US has legitimate policy grievances against Iran. Few here remember, however, that Iran has legitimate grievances against the US. Here are but three egregious examples.
1. Those include the fact that in 1953 the CIA overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran and installed a dictator whose brutal reign lasted until the Shah’s overthrow in 1979. (We remember the US hostages taken, but not the triggering cause.) We then sold the shah boatloads of advanced weaponry to guarantee our cheap access to Iranian oil.
2. During the 1980s war between Iraq and Iran, the US removed Iraq from its “state sponsors of terrorism” list in order to expedite weapons transfers to the country—then our preferred ally in the region—as well as providing crucial military intelligence to Saddam Hussein. Among the weapons sold to Iraq were ingredients for Hussein’s chemical weapons which he used against Iran and then on his own Kurdish minority population.
3. In 1988 the US Navy shot down an Iranian passenger plane, flying in Iranian airspace, killing all 290 passengers. President Reagan admitted “regrets,” saying the Navy ship’s commander thought it was an Iranian military jet.
Not to mention the fact that the US has more than two dozen military bases in the nations that border Iran and enforcement of a crushing schedule of economic sanctions.
Because of interlocking rivalries and alliances in that region, an outright attack by the US on Iran risks a dramatic escalation of conflict involving several nations (as well as non-state but heavily armed actors). It is a dangerous, foolhardy gambit. On this 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, we need to pause and consider the costs: One political assassination in 1914 led to more than 20 countries joining the fray, at a cost of 37 million casualties.
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