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Under UN Charter, Iran’s Attack Was a Legal Response to Israel’s Illegal Attack

Iran’s attack on Israel was lawful self-defense carried out in compliance with international humanitarian law.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks during a UN Security Council meeting at the UN headquarters in New York City on April 18, 2024.

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On April 1, Israel mounted an unprovoked military attack on a building that was part of the Iranian Embassy complex in Damascus, Syria, killing seven of Iran’s senior military advisers and five additional people. The victims included Gen. Mohamad Reza Zahedi, head of Iran’s covert military operations in Lebanon and Syria, and two other senior generals.

Although Israel’s attack violated the United Nations Charter, the UN Security Council refused to condemn it because the United States, the U.K. and France exercised their vetoes on April 4.

Iran considered this attack on its consulate “an act of war,” Trita Parsi wrote at Foreign Policy.

On April 11, the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations stated: “Had the UN Security Council condemned the Zionist regime’s reprehensible act of aggression on our diplomatic premises in Damascus and subsequently brought to justice its perpetrators, the imperative for Iran to punish this rogue regime might have been obviated.”

Then, on April 13, in response to Israel’s attack, Iran fired more than 300 drones and missiles at the Israeli air base from which the April 1 attacks had emanated. Only two of them landed inside Israel and no one was killed; a Bedouin girl was injured. The U.S., U.K., France, Jordan and Israel intercepted the remaining Iranian missiles and drones. A senior U.S. military official said “there’s no significant damage within Israel itself.”

The Iranian mission to the UN wrote in an April 13 letter to the UN secretary-general that Iran’s action was conducted “in the exercise of Iran’s inherent right to self-defense” under Article 51 of the UN Charter “and in response to the Israeli recurring military aggressions, particularly its armed attack” on April 1 “against Iranian diplomatic premises, in the defiance of Article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The April 1 attack was not the first time Israel had attacked key Iranian personnel. In 2020, Israel killed Iran’s leading nuclear scientist on Iranian soil. Since December, Israel has assassinated at least 18 Iranian military commanders and staff. Iran suspects that Israel played a role in the assassination of nuclear scientists in 2010 and 2012.

Also, “Israel carried out covert attacks on two major natural gas pipelines inside Iran” in February, “disrupting the flow of heat and cooking gas to provinces with millions of people,” The New York Times reported. “The level of impact was very high because these are two significant pipelines going south to north,” according to Homayoun Falakshahi, a senior energy analyst at the data analytics firm Kpler. “We have never seen anything like this in scale and scope.”

Iran’s April 13 letter said the Security Council “has failed in its duty to maintain international peace and security, allowing the Israeli regime to transgress red lines and violate the fundamental principles of international law” which “exacerbated tensions in the region and threatened regional and international peace and security.”

Besides “warning about any further military provocations” by Israel, Iran pledged to “defend its people, national security and interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity against any threat or acts of aggression and to respond to any such threat or aggression vigorously and in accordance with international law.”

Iran added that it “will not hesitate to exercise its inherent right of self-defense when required.” It warned that if Israel commits “any military aggression again, Iran’s response will assuredly and decisively be stronger, and more resolute.”

In addition, Iran made clear that it seeks to avoid further escalation that could spark a widespread regional war. An April 13 social media post from Iran’s permanent mission to the UN stated, “The matter can be deemed concluded. However, should the Israeli regime make another mistake, Iran’s response will be considerably more severe. It is a conflict between Iran and the rogue Israeli regime, from which the U.S. MUST STAY AWAY!”

At a Security Council meeting on April 14, Iran’s UN Ambassador Saeid Iravani defended the lawfulness of the missile and drone attack on Israel. He noted the hypocrisy of the U.S. and its allies that claim Israel is acting in self-defense as it conducts its genocide of the Palestinian people:

These countries, especially the United States, have shielded Israel from any responsibility for the Gaza massacre. While they have denied Iran’s inherent right to self-defense against the Israeli armed attack on our diplomatic premises, at the same time they shamefully justify the Israeli massacre and genocide against the defenseless Palestinian people under the pretext of self-defense.

Israel’s Attack on Iranian Consulate Violated the UN Charter and Vienna Conventions

Iran’s April 13 attack on Israel was a lawful exercise of self-defense in response to Israel’s unlawful April 1 attack on the Iranian consulate. The Israeli attack was an illegal act of aggression.

Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter states, “All Members 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 Purposes of the United Nations.”

An act of aggression is inconsistent with the purposes of the UN. Article 39 of the Charter says, “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.”

An “‘act of aggression’ means the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations,” under the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court. Aggression includes “the invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State.”

Moreover, “Consular premises shall be inviolable,” according to Article 31 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Article 1 defines consular premises as “the buildings or parts of buildings and the land ancillary thereto, irrespective of ownership, used exclusively for the purposes of the consular post.”

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations likewise provides in Article 22.1 that, “The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.”

During Israel’s bombing of Iran’s consulate in Syria, it targeted and killed very senior Iranian officials. The attack constituted an act of aggression, which triggered Iran’s right to self-defense.

Iran’s April 13 Attack on Israel Constituted Lawful Self-Defense

Article 51 states, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

An armed attack includes not just an attack against the territory of a state, including its airspace and territorial sea, but also attacks directed against its armed forces or embassies abroad.

On April 13, Iran’s aircraft struck two air bases in the Negev desert, where the April 1 attack on Iran’s consulate had been launched. “Iran retaliated against those targets in Israel directly related to the Israeli attack on Iran,” former U.S. weapons inspector Scott Ritter wrote.

Nevertheless, the Security Council has failed to adopt a resolution condemning Israel’s attack on Iran’s consulate, as Iran pointed out in its April 13 letter to the UN secretary-general.

At an April 14 meeting of the Security Council, the Israeli representative declared that Iran is the number one global sponsor of terrorism and the world’s worst human rights violator. It is Israel, however, that has killed nearly 34,000 Palestinians — two-thirds of them women and children — during its campaign of genocide in Gaza that has now entered its seventh month.

Iran’s self-defense action was the natural outcome of Israel’s violations of international law — both on Syrian territory and elsewhere — the representative from the Syrian Arab Republic said at the April 14 council meeting. Israel is trying to cover up its genocide and military failures in Gaza, the Syrian representative added.

Iran’s Attack Satisfied the Principles of Proportionality, Distinction and Precautions

Although Iran’s attack on Israel was conducted in lawful self-defense, it was also carried out in compliance with international humanitarian law, which requires that the use of military force satisfy the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions.

Distinction means that the attack must distinguish between combatants and civilians. Iran’s attack targeted military installations and no civilians were killed.

Proportionality means that the attack cannot be excessive in relation to the military advantage sought. Iran didn’t strike Israeli headquarters, barracks or targets that would result in casualties. The attack was limited and “appeared calculated not to escalate the situation,” according to Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept.

Precautions means that steps must be taken to minimize harm to civilians. Iran telegraphed its intention to attack Israel for over a week and announced it had launched the drones hours before they reached Israel. This provided substantial notice to Israel and enabled it to assemble the defenses.

Iran’s measured attack complied with the requirements of international humanitarian law.

Netanyahu Is Gunning for War With Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like nothing better than to start a war with Iran. Netanyahu considers Iran an “existential threat” to Israel. He persuaded former President Donald Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, which was working to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

As the world waits for Israel’s response to the Iranian attack, President Joe Biden said the U.S. would not assist Israel in an offensive military action against Iran but it would give Israel defensive support if Iran attacks Israel. “But the distinction between offensive or defensive support becomes meaningless the second a war breaks out,” wrote Trita Parsi.

Today, the U.S. and U.K. imposed additional punishing sanctions on Iran. Unilateral coercive measures, levied without the imprimatur of the Security Council, are illegal and generally harm only the general population.

“The president’s been very clear we don’t seek a war with Iran,” White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We’re not looking for escalation here. We will continue to help Israel defend itself.”

Biden, according to Parsi, “has committed himself to two contradictory goals: preventing a regional war while proclaiming ironclad support for Israel in the case of war, even if Israel initiates it.”

Although Biden levels mild criticism at Israel for its genocidal campaign, he continues to send weapons and other support to enable it under the guise of self-defense.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights group in the U.S., stated that “the Biden administration emboldened the far-right Israeli government to manufacture this crisis by repeatedly giving it carte blanche to violate international law without any accountability — from murdering journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, to expanding illegal settlements, to committing a genocide in Gaza, to bombing an Iranian Embassy complex in Syria.”

“For decades, the United States has sought to destabilize Iran, a critical Asian power situated at the intersection of three major continents and multiple waterways,” the Committee of Anti-Imperialists in Solidarity with Iran (CASI) said in a statement.

In 1953, the CIA engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had nationalized British oil interests. The U.S. effectively installed the vicious Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled Iran with an iron fist until he was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution and replaced with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy.

“Since then, Iran has weathered both the direct and indirect effects of U.S. imperialism, culminating in a brutal devastating eight-year military aggression (1980-88) and a devastating sanctions regime that has denied Iranians’ access to basic medical supplies, infrastructure, foodstuffs, and led to astronomical inflation,” the CASI statement said. “Over the last few decades, Iran has suffered assassinations of its scientists and generals, bombings of critical infrastructure, and repeated violations of its sovereignty and attacks on its national development.”

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