Emboldened by Impunity: The History and Consequences of Failure to Enforce Iranian Violations of International Law
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Iran is currently the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, providing Hezbollah and various Palestinian terrorist groups including Hamas with "extensive funding, training and weapons." Iran's support for these groups violates several legally binding provisions of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 of September 28, 2001, including its requirement that states "refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts." Iran's continued harboring of senior al-Qaeda officials violates Resolution 1373's requirement that all states "deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts." Professor Maggs' article for this symposium makes the point that Iran has regularly engaged in or assisted with armed attacks against Iraq and Israel, both of which are allies of the United States, and he lists several incidents reported during just the first nine months of 2006. Yet what has been the international community's response to these various Iranian violations of international law? Not a single Security Council condemnation or sanction.
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The Iranian leadership's apocalyptic messianism and reverence for martyrdom are of particular concern in light of its avowed goal of destroying the United States and Israel. As Ahmadinejad has starkly put it: "God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States... . This goal [is] attainable, and surely can be achieved." Khamenei explained his antipathy to the United States [as follows: "The source of all human torment and suffering is the "liberal democracy' promoted by the West." According to Hassan Abbassi, chief strategist for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and a top adviser to President Ahmadinejad: "We have a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization ... There are 29 sensitive sites in the U.S. and in the West ... We know how we are going to attack them." Abbassi explains that, "We have to uproot liberal democracy from the face of the world."
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President Ahmadinejad's recent statements calling for Israel's destruction have received considerable attention. Some analysts argue that the international community should not be overly concerned by Ahmadinejad's statements because he does not fully control Iran's nuclear policy. In addition to the Presidency, the major power hubs in Iran are the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini, and the Expediency Council, currently chaired by former Iranian President Rafsanjani. Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has revealed that Khameini told him in a private meeting that "setting Israel on fire" was a preeminent Iranian goal. Khamenei explained to Aznar "why Iran must declare war on Israel and the United States until they are completely destroyed." Rafsanjani, the chair of the other power hub in Iran, said the following in a speech at Tehran University: "the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality."
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The Iranian regime's apocalyptic messianism and exaltation of martyrdom may make it impossible to deter Iran from using nuclear weapons to achieve its avowed aims of destroying the United States and Israel. The relatively stable U.S.-Soviet balance of terror based on mutual assured destruction may not be replicable with respect to Iran. Iran could launch the nuclear assault itself directly or, more likely and for the sake of "plausible deniability," use one of its terrorist proxies as it did with the bombings in Lebanon and Argentina.
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However, even before Iran launches a nuclear attack, and indeed even if it never does, an Iranian nuclear arsenal will make Iran far more dangerous than it is today. The current Iranian government is already the world's leading state supporter of terrorism. An Iranian nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a "nuclear umbrella," making countries victimized by Iranian-sponsored terrorism even more reluctant to retaliate against Iran. This would likely make Iran an even more self-confident supporter of terrorism. Iran could also harm Western security interests by simply threatening to use its nuclear weapons. A very unhealthy precedent for such nuclear blackmail has already been set by North Korea, which made the following threat less than two days after its initial nuclear weapons test: "We hope the situation will be resolved before an unfortunate incident of us firing a nuclear missile comes. That depends on how the U.S. will act."
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Another danger of Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal is that many of its neighbors in the Middle East would feel compelled to follow suit. The fear that an Iranian nuclear arsenal will unleash a cascade of proliferation across the Middle East was heightened by the disclosure in November 2006 that six Arab states have recently begun to accelerate efforts to acquire nuclear technology. An editorial in the Egyptian government daily newspaper Al-Ahram put it as follows: "Iran's nuclear capability ... will spur many powers in the region to develop a nuclear program." Such a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East would likely lead to the worldwide collapse of the already tottering nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) regime. In addition, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East tinderbox, with its existing border disputes, religious fanaticism, ethnic hatreds, unstable governments, terrorist groups, and tendency for conflicts to spiral out of control, seems likely to result in nuclear war.