Three terrible consequences of a U.S. attack on Iran
Regardless of whether President Donald Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Iran deal on May 12th, there is a growing chorus of people in the Trump Administration who are openly pushing for the military overthrow of the current government of Iran.
This includes National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It may also include the President himself, who has lambasted the Iran deal on Twitter, calling it “terrible,” and a “direct national security threat.” On May 1, Trump attacked the deal as “horrible,” and declared that withdrawing out of the Iran deal would send North Korea the “right message.” It is clear that Trump hates the agreement; the world will soon find out if he is also committed to regime change.
What would happen if the U.S. actually attacked Iran? Three likely outcomes of any such attack would be (1) the further weakening of international law, (2) a rush to nuclear weapons proliferation by other states, and perhaps most disturbing, (3) a spread of global war to new levels.
An attack against Iran would be illegal
International law only permits violence against another country in legitimate self-defense (including self-defense initiated in response to an imminent attack); or, with the authority and blessing of the United Nations Security Council.
An attack against Iran by the United States would probably never be authorized by the Security Council, as China and Russia would veto any such action. France and the United Kingdom also would be wary of approving any such authorization. Both countries have outwardly supported the Iran deal. It is true that the U.K. joined the illegal invasion of Iraq, but the French did not, and they fought against a rubber stamp authorization from the Security Council authorizing the Iraq War.
An attack against Iran would also not constitute self-defense. Iran does not pose an imminent threat to the security of the United States. There would be no reasonable way to justify an invasion or attack on these grounds, either.
How about claiming legitimacy for an attack on the basis of alleged violations of human rights by the Iranian government? This was the argument the U.K. made to justify its participation in the April 2018 strikes in Syria. Specifically, the U.K. argued the strikes were legal because they were the only way to prevent the Syrian government from committing further war crimes. But this is not a recognized basis for attacking another country under international law. There is a wide scale, even surprising consensus (lawyers, after all, rarely agree on anything) amongst practitioners of international law that the strikes against Syria were manifestly illegal. Thus, an attack against Iran premised on those same grounds would also likely be illegal.
If the U.S. attacks Iran and does so illegally, the attack would be another nail in the coffin of global, collective international security; maybe even the final nail. It would mean that the United Nations would have yet again failed a smaller, weaker country from the aggression of a great power. An attack on Iran would very clearly spell the end of public international law in its modern form. In a world of imperial anarchy, international law would be seen as useless—and perhaps rightly so.
An attack against Iran would trigger WMD proliferation
International law generally prohibits nuclear weapons development, and also requires nuclear powers to work towards disarmament. But in an era when North Korea, Israel, India and Pakistan have refused to sign or abide by non-proliferation requirements—and they are all known or suspected nuclear powers—arguments coming from the great powers that weaker countries must abandon their weapons programs appear nakedly one-sided.
In 1996, the International Court of Justice issued an advisory opinion on the legality of the use of nuclear weapons. The opinion is muddled and confusing, taking no real position other than to suggest that the use of nuclear weapons would probably run afoul of general laws of war requiring proportionality and necessity. But the Court uttered a famous sentence that it could not conclude on “the legality or illegality of the use of nuclear weapons by a State in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which its very survival would be at stake.”
An attack on Iran would motivate many countries to seek nuclear weapons. Weaker countries would rush to build weapons programs as a way of keeping away invaders and would note that their “very survival would be at stake” in a world where the strong routinely attack the weak.
In addition, countries seeking great power or regional power status would see an incentive to build nuclear weapons, as a way of joining an exclusive club and being seen as strong. It is easy to imagine countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Malaysia seeking weapons for these reasons.
If countries like the U.S., China and Russia refuse to discuss disarmament, and invade other countries based on trumped up charges of weapons programs, it is not hard to see why other countries would see both status and security in possessing a nuclear bomb.
An attack against Iran may trigger global war
Global war on the scale of the First and Second World Wars does not emerge overnight. Rather, it results from a slow build-up of previous military action and a weakness of the international system to keep the peace. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931—eight years before the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Italy invaded Libya in 1923—sixteen years prior to 1939.
Since 9/11, the United States has attacked and destroyed Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; helped destroy Syria through proxy forces; and supported the Saudi Arabian invasion and destruction of Yemen. There is already a regional war in the Middle East that has been raging for the last seventeen years. This would be the fiery backdrop of any attack on Iran.
Would the Russians intervene in an attack on Iran? If so, an attack on Iran risks a great power war, with both states possessing nuclear weapons. Would the Turks intervene? Turkey has openly coordinated with Iran and Russia on the issue of Syria. It is logical to assume these three countries are coordinating together on potential military action directed against Iran. If the Turks were to defy the Americans, there is a risk of a conflict with a NATO ally, calling into question the alliance. Would the U.S. really risk the stability NATO in this manner? That remains an open question.
The Middle East looks nothing like it did before 9/11. Today, it is largely in ruins. Opening a new front in the War of the Greater Middle East— now raging for 17 years—risks World War III. This is not hyperbole, but reality. Imperial warfare remains the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Every day Americans need to recognize the grave danger posed by their government on other countries. Every day Americans need to stop their government before another war breaks out. If the hawks are truly in charge in the Trump Administration, then the world will not just continue to burn; it will explode.