03 December, 2011

Iran - international law

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has stated:

"Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Foreign Secretary William Hague described the attack on the British Embassy in Iran on 29 November as "a breach of international responsibilities of which any nation should be ashamed." The Foreign Secretary said that the attack, in which Embassy buildings were vandalised and looted by demonstrators, was a grave violation of the Vienna Convention which states that a host state is required to protect the premises of a diplomatic mission against any intrusion, damage or disturbance. The Foreign Secretary expressed his gratitude for the strong statements of concern and support from the United States, the European Union, Germany, Poland, Russia, China and many other nations.
The British Embassy in Tehran has now been closed.  All Iranian diplomatic staff have been ordered to leave the United Kingdom."

Further details of the events at the embassy in Tehran are at The Guardian 29th November - "Storming of British Embassy in Tehran worsens bilateral relations."

The Foreign Secretary is of course absolutely right in describing the event as a grave violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961.  Article 22 states:


Article 22

1.The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter
them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.

2.The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises
of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the
mission or impairment of its dignity.

3.The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of
transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.

Some of the background to the Vienna Convention may be seen at Audio Visual Library. and see also Paul Behrens writing in The Guardian 18th April 2011 - "The curious world of diplomatic relations."

Through fears relating to nuclear proliferation, tensions have been increasing between Iran and many other nations.   The question is the subject of a number of United Nations Security Council Resolutions and also action by the European Union - see HM Treasury - Financial Services - Iran (Nuclear Proliferation).

An interesting document on the American position is Congressional Research Service - Iran Sanctions - 13th October 2011 (Kenneth Katzman) where it is noted that:

"The Obama Administration’s policy approach toward Iran has contrasted with the Bush Administration’s by attempting to couple the imposition of sanctions to a consistent, direct U.S. effort to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue. That approach was not initially altered because of the Iranian dispute over its June 12, 2009, elections. However, with negotiations yielding no firm Iranian agreement to compromise, since early 2010 the Administration and Congress have focused on achieving adoption of and implementing additional U.S., U.N., and allied country sanctions whose cumulative effect could compel Iran to accept a nuclear bargain."

It is exceptionally difficult to assess the actual impact of sanctions on the Iranian government.  Frequently, sanctions only serve to make such governments even more obdurate and can have serious unintended consequences - see "The Power of Economic Sanctions where the following view is expressed:

"Sanctions are ultimately blunt tools of foreign policy because their deployment is rarely precise enough to affect only the target economy, and because they presuppose that economic harm will lead to the sort of political pressure that will benefit the instigating country. By using a sanction a country is assuming that it is truly able to influence the leadership of the target country, a highly implausible assumption suggesting that other governments are pliable. Sanctions ultimately are a battle of political wills, with the loser being the country whose economy cannot withstand the pressure."

Are we witnessing the playing out of a pre-planned trajectory to a war in Iran as, for example, Craig Murray appears to believe?  Speaking to the Chilcot Inquiry, Tony Blair referred to Iran as the "2010 Question."  It remains to be answered - see Watching the Law 29th January 2010.

It is worth recalling that the Iraq-Iran War lasted from 1980-88 and was extremely bloody and ultimately futile.  The financial costs of military action against Iran would be massive not to mention the possible human costs and the likelihood of it triggering major conflict across the Middle East and, perhaps, beyond.  The action relating to Libya in 2011 cost the UK an as yet officially undisclosed sum but may have been as high as £1.75 bn.   Costs were certainly in the order of several million pounds per day.  In the present desperate economic climate the question should be seriously asked whether the UK can afford to continue its present foreign policy stance with its "bottom line" of military action.  In this context it is vital to note that the British Armed Forces are now at minimal strength and face further cuts. 

Of course, it is entirely possible to make a case that an international military option - (as opposed to any UK unilateral action) - should not be taken off the table - see, for instance, The Telegraph "Iran: Why we need start the war coalition."

The author (Dan Hodges) argues - " ... let’s ask ourselves what the practical implications would be if the Stop the War coalition won. If David Cameron and Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon stood up in unison and said, “under no circumstances will we attack Iran”. The sabres were sheathed. The nudges and winks ceased. The Iranians were formally informed that whatever machines of infernal damnation they chose to construct, the could do so free from any risk of a military response.

The world would be safer? The middle east more stable? The families of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv able to sleep more soundly in their beds?

"The military option is always a terrible one. But to remove it unilaterally from the table will not reduce the danger we face. It will increase it."

As things appear to stand, Cameron, Obama and Ban Ki-Moon are hardly likely to make any such statement. However, as former Foreign Secretary David Miliband put it, "a concerted diplomatic effort on Iran is needed now to prevent the world sleepwalking into another war in the Middle East.”



Head of Legal Blog - "Iran's clear breach of international law" - 29th November 2011

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