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Iran-US tensions and contradictory approaches to the international legal obligations | View

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By Saeed Bagheri

Regardless of its regional and international troubles and its exhausted economy which is rapidly going downhill, Iran remains in Syria as a key supporter of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.

The same Iranian officials who have complain vociferously about the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal in violation of its obligations and the international legal norms are still justifying Iran’s military presence in Syria by citing an invitation from Damascus to fight against terrorism and violent extremism in Syria.

However, Iran’s military presence in the country and its role in safeguarding the survival of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime would seem to be a violation of its international obligations under international law.

Basically, the jurisprudence of international judicial bodies including the International Court of Justice is based on the acceptability of military intervention at the request of the legitimate government of a state which has effective control over its territory and has not been replaced by another political entity. This is Tehran’s argument and Moscow’s too.

Nevertheless, the consensus view of military intervention argues that involvement in a civil war, in particular when its objective is to support an established government against its own population, is unlawful even if by invitation. In a words, the military intervention on behalf of Bashar Al-Assad’s embattled regime, accused of multiple war crimes against its own population, is illegal. And even if Iran’s presence in the conflict is considered to be lawful, it would be obliged to ensure respect for the rules of the law of armed conflict regulated by the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

The case put forward by Iranian officials is that Iran wants to establish peace, stability and security in its neighbourhood. They content that in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, they do not differentiate between Shia and Sunni and strive towards they want peace, security and brotherhood for all and development for the whole region. President Hassan Rouhani insists Iran is not seeking regional hegemony but is rather working for a strong Middle East and better relations and, therefore, “Iran’s face is the face of fighting terrorism and establishing peace and security in the region.”

But especially given that its fight against terrorism enjoys little international support, it cannot easily be claimed that Iran’s actions in supporting an authoritarian, violent, oppressive and exclusionary regime by turning a blind eye to humanitarian violence is, in reality, bringing peace and stability.

Fighting terrorism and extremism cannot be presented as a carte blanche. Violating the principles of sovereign equality and non-intervention in internal affairs cannot be justified simply on the basis of a war on terror.

Moreover, a simple anaylsis demonstrates that Iran’s efforts at achieving peace, if that is what they are, are achieving the opposite effect. The United States and its Middle Eastern allies -Israel and Saudi Arabia – are more and more vocal about their readiness to unleash the full forces of their military if provoked.

Of course, there are countless issues involved in the current situation. And one illegal act – such as intervening in a regional conflict – does not justify another one – such as unilaterally cancelling a multilateral agreement and imposing and enforcing international sanctions without evidence of wrongdoing. In either case, both states are internationally responsible for their wrongful acts and failure to conform to legal norms.

Dr. Saeed Bagheri is a Visiting Fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, University of Cambridge and a Max Weber Post-Doctoral Fellow at the European University Institute.

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