Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Iran Crisis: The Rhetorical Steps to War? (1)

Russian diplomats to the UN have recently criticised attempts by the UK and the US to pass a resolution that would resolution that would classify the current crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme as a "threat to international peace and security", which would mean that the Security Council could take action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter - the Chapter that allows for, amongst other things, the potential use of force. Interestingly, it seems that the US may be paying the price for past practices in this regard, with one diplomat noting that the main argument, that it was necessary to send a "robust message" to the Iranians, had been used before - and had resulted in the sending of much more than a message, robust or otherwise: "In the case of Yugoslavia, for example, we were told at the beginning that references to Chapter VII were necessary to send political signals, and it finally ended up with NATO bombardments". The attempts at legal justifications for the war in Iraq, based mainly upon the reactivation of old Chapter VII resolutions when faced with the inability to pass new ones, will also be giving Russia and China, the main opponents to the proposed resolution, pause for thought; and who can blame them.

Given this, and leading on from Jack's post below on recent allegations in the US that a decision to take military action against Iran has essentially already been taken, and my own contribution suggesting slightly conflicting messages from within the UK Government, we thought that it might be useful to run a series of posts, detailing what is being said, and how it is being said, by the major players in this crisis, most notably the five permanent members of the Security Council and Iran itself; and also analysing the interests driving such statements and their international law implications. The parallels with the rhetorical build-up to war in Iraq are certainly striking; and, if the current stand-off does end in military action, a record detailing how the justifications for such a course were offered to the public, and how they developed over time, could be an important resource.. Even if, as is to be fervently hoped, the current war of words does not descend into one of weapons, it will still be an interesting look at an issue that has huge implications, whatever its outcome, for both international law and international relations.

The most public, recent development is, of course, the recent letter from Iranian president Ahmadinejad, which Lorenzo has flagged in his post below. Significant, certainly, being the first of its kind for a lengthy period of time (since 1979), and for its timing in the current international standoff; but probably not, in fact, all that important. Ahmadinejad's letter is not really, as he suggests at the outset, about "discussing contradictions and questions" in the "hope that it might bring about an opportunity to redress them"; instead, he spends most of his time rehashing old grievances against the US in a rambling, badly-written and badly-punctuated manner (indeed, one of the most surprising things is that the Iranian President does not seem to have employed an editor for the first letter from an Iranian to a US President in over 25 years). It is certainly the case that some of the points he makes are valid in terms of US foreign relations policy, but there is absolutely nothing startling or new in what he says; and Condoleeza Rice was quite correct in her assertion that "This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort".

Roger Alford over at Opinio Juris has an interesting breakdown and analysis of the claims made in the letter, but a brief perusal is sufficient to convince the reader that Ahmadinejad is not attempting to initate a conversation; rather, he is seeking to goad. Take, for example, his comments of September 11. After noting that it was "a horrendous incident" which Iran condemned unreservedly, he immediately follows up with "September eleven was not a simple operation. Could it be planned and executed without coordination with intelligence and security services – or their extensive infiltration? Of course this is just an educated guess". The supposedly concilatory tone of parts of the letter, in which the Iranian President invites Bush to join him in solving the problems of the world, must be seen in this light: America, for Ahmadinejad, is the problems of the world. Given this, the US response, which has basically been to ignore the letter, was only to be expected - however much some may long to hear substantive justifications of some of the foreign policies targeted in the letter. If the latter was indeed its main goal, it is very badly framed and written indeed.

There is, however, one decidedly startling feature of the letter: its frequent references to religion and religious figures in making its claims and proposing its solutions. Not all that surprising, perhaps, coming from the President of Iran, a Muslim state, but the fact that it is going to the President of the fiercely secular US is certainly noteworthy. It is, perhaps, an attempt by Ahmadinejad to appeal to - or more likely, to goad - Bush's well-known religiosity; however, that the US President is being exhorted to "a genuine return to the teachings of prophets, to monotheism and justice, to preserve human dignity and obedience to the Almighty and His prophets?" is in itself striking. In any event, it seems unlikely that this letter will prove to be a signifcant document in the developing crisis over Iranian nuclear ambitions; indeed, rather than a serious invitation to treat, it is probably best viewed as some very public mischief-making by Ahmadinejad.

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