WASHINGTON -- Any possible military action by Israel against Iran's nuclear installations is likely to violate the international rule of law, according to former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Hans Blix (see GSN, Oct. 21).
Since Tehran has not launched an armed campaign on another nation, nor does it appear to be preparing for one, "it doesn't seem to me that an attack on Iran can be legally defended," he said Wednesday during a panel discussion at the Georgetown University Law Center.
The U.N. charter states that member nations, including Israel, "shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent" with the goals of the international body.
Observers "can see many other reasons, very good reasons, why there should not be an attack on Iran," including the unintended consequences such an event might have throughout the region, but the legal argument has yet to be explored in depth, Blix told the audience.
He did not specify what kind of consequences, from a formal condemnation or something more serious, Israel might incur from the international organization if it moves against Iran.
Blix noted the United States and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 without being penalized by the U.N. Security Council, though Washington's stature within the international community suffered. The 15-member council itself never took a vote to specifically authorize the invasion.
The United States and the United Kingdom are permanent, veto-wielding Security Council members, meaning they could have headed off any penalty over Iraq and theoretically could do the same should Israel move against Iran.
Israel has a history of unilateral military action against the atomic activities of neighboring Arab states. In 1981 it bombed the Osirak nuclear installation in Iraq and in 2007 it destroyed a suspected nuclear reactor site in Syria.
The United States and other Western powers have long believed that Iran's uranium enrichment activities are geared toward weapons production, despite Tehran's assertion that its program is intended only for civilian purposes.
The Middle East nation this week announced it now possesses nearly 70 pounds of uranium enriched to 20 percent, material it says is needed for production of medical isotopes at a research reactor in Tehran (see GSN, Oct. 20). Washington and other governments fear the capability puts Iran on the path to being able to enrich uranium to weapon-grade levels.
Jerusalem for years has refused to rule out military action against Iran. The idea of an Israeli air campaign aimed at rolling back Iran’s nuclear activities was notably broached again in an Atlantic magazine report this summer.
Experts argue an Israeli airstrike would be expected to target Iran's Arak heavy-water reactor, the Isfahan uranium conversion plant, the Natanz uranium enrichment complex and the Bushehr nuclear power plant.
Yet an attack might fail to destroy Iran's stocks of low-enriched uranium as they are dispersed through the country, often in unknown locations, and the Persian Gulf nation would retain any expertise it has obtained on warhead design, observers say. Tehran is also known or suspected to be preparing other nuclear sites, including the still-unfinished Qum uranium enrichment plant.
Nonproliferation expert Joseph Cirincione, speaking at the same panel discussion as Blix, said an Israeli assault would also end the debate within Iran on whether to manufacture a nuclear weapon, with public opinion firmly tilting toward militarization.
The recent waves of sanctions by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and others against Iran are "biting" the country's economy and should be given more time to work, said Cirincione, who leads the nongovernmental Ploughshares Fund.
Both experts refrained from saying whether they believed Iran's atomic program is aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons.
Blix lauded efforts by the Obama administration and others to persuade Iran to give up its nascent enrichment program, citing a plan developed last year by the International Atomic Energy Agency to have France and Russia convert the Middle East nation's low-enriched uranium to the level required to fuel its medical research reactor.
However, the former Swedish diplomat and one-time chief U.N. weapons inspector admitted he is worried that Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which has recently played an increased role in the country's leadership, might not be interested in any form of nuclear detente.
"Maybe they will say, 'Look, we are in power. You need us, the military. You need to [make] the sacrifices, we need to have the weapons'" to fend off external threats, Blix speculated.
He also warned Western powers not to humiliate the Iranian leadership by demanding the nation cease its enrichment program before future negotiations begin.
"I don't know any poker player willing to throw away their trump card before you sit down to negotiate," Blix stated.