Attacking Iran Would Be a Crime

The US government has made a habit of threatening other countries with military attack if they fail to do what Washington wants, and in some cases the other country finds itself under attack even when it has complied. Iraq disarmed and ended its unconventional weapons programs, and then it was invaded anyway in the name of "disarming" it. The Libyan government dismantled its programs only to find itself targeted a few years later for other reasons. Iran fully complied with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for several years, and only began reducing its compliance after the US had violated all its obligations and waged an economic war against them. Nine months into Biden’s presidency, the US and Israel now routinely threaten to attack Iran while all the Trump-era "maximum pressure" sanctions remain in place. In each case, the danger of nuclear proliferation had been eliminated or contained, and then the government that complied with US demands still ended up in its crosshairs.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Blinken said the administration is "looking at, as necessary, other options if Iran is not prepared to engage quickly in good faith," and these "options" are widely understood to include the threat to use force. Israeli officials have been even more explicit. It is simply taken for granted by these officials and by most other Western policymakers that launching attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities is a legitimate policy option that should never be ruled out. In fact, these officials are threatening to commit acts of criminal aggression and their statements ought to be condemned. Following through on these threats would be a flagrant violation of international law and the UN Charter, which calls on its members to "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 Purposes of the United Nations." Threatening Iran with attack violates this prohibition. Attacking them would be an act of illegal aggression.

The drumbeat for threatening Iran in U.S. foreign policy publications has grown louder in recent months. In just the last couple weeks, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy published articles calling on Biden to "to send a clear message that it is willing to go beyond sanctions and conduct a military strike" and advising him to "say that if Iran makes a diplomatic outcome impossible, it risks its entire nuclear infrastructure." These threats of aggression are supposed to strengthen Biden’s negotiating position, but like any other attempt at thuggish intimidation it is bound to provoke resistance. Biden’s hawkish critics doubt that he would order an attack, but the thing to remember here is that he and his officials should not even be hinting that he might do this.

It can’t be emphasized enough that the United States has no right to attack Iran. Neither does Israel or any other state. One of the principal purposes of the United Nations was to rule out the kind of military aggression by one state against another that the US and Israel threaten Iran with almost every week. If the positions were reversed and Iranian officials were making such threats, we can be sure that it would be interpreted in Washington as proof of their irrational hostility and cited as a reason why negotiating with them is useless. When our officials make these threats, it is treated as "smart" and "balanced" diplomacy. The deeper problem is that illegal aggression is so normalized in our foreign policy debates that arguments over using force against Iran tend to revolve around operational issues and whether the attack would "work."

Attacking Iran would also likely have many dangerous consequences for the US, Iran, and the entire Middle East. The ensuing war would probably be costlier than any that the US has fought since Vietnam, and it could easily turn into a regional conflagration involving many other countries. An attack might very well spur the Iranian government to build the nuclear weapons that it has not been trying to acquire for the last two decades. Those consequences shouldn’t be minimized, but Americans need to understand that attacking Iran would be a crime no matter what happened later.

Many American politicians and policymakers go to great lengths to misrepresent preventive war as being somehow defensive, but that is one thing that it cannot be. Preventive war is never waged as a last resort, because the danger that is supposedly being "prevented" does not yet exist. States that wage preventive war are exactly the kind of destructive rogue actors that US policymakers claim to oppose, but the policymakers claim the right to engage in this same rogue behavior.

The threats to start a war against Iran are irresponsible and outrageous, but what makes them even worse is that the nuclear issue could still be resolved peacefully. Indeed, it had already been resolved peacefully until the US reneged on the JCPOA in 2018. Biden recently said that the US is "continuing to suffer" from Trump’s decision to renege on the agreement, but if he wished to end that suffering it has always been in his power to salvage the nuclear deal by taking the US back into it and undoing Trump’s "maximum pressure" campaign. If Biden had taken the initiative and done these things months ago, he could have had a significant diplomatic success instead of making veiled threats to wage an unnecessary and illegal war. Instead of floating other "options" that are bound to lead to disaster, Biden should focus his efforts on securing a negotiated compromise.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.