Escalating tensions over Iran's purported nuclear ambitions have led many in the United States and Israel to fear yet another conflict in the Middle East.
Israel and the West claim that Iran seeks to enrich uranium, a crucial step in developing a nuclear bomb. The Iranians counter that the sole purpose for their nuclear program is to provide domestic energy. To address some of the key issues underlying the current situation in Iran, the University of Miami School of Law hosted a panel this week to examine the legal implications of a preemptive military strike by Israel against Iran.
The panel – co-sponsored by the International Law Society, the Jewish Law Students Association and the Military Law Society – included Luis E. Fleischman, who has served as Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, as well as Miami Law Professors Stephen J. Schnably and Markus Wagner.
The tense situation between Iran and Israel has been compounded by political upheavals in the region, known collectively as the Arab Spring, the panelists agreed. Tensions have been further aggravated by recent spikes in oil prices. Iran remains one of the largest producers of crude oil in the world, and any military campaign to disrupt its nuclear program would likely have detrimental effects on the worldwide supply of crude.
The contentious history between the nations involved is only making their problems worse. Once allies, the United States and Iran severed diplomatic relations after the latter's Islamic Revolution of 1979, which saw the ouster of American-backed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. With the Shah removed, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini quickly rose to power and installed a theocratic regime that was hostile to both the United States and its chief ally in the region, Israel.
Unlike the United States, which is buffered from Iranian aggression by oceans and continents, Israel is geographically close to Iran. As a result, Iran's policies are felt much more keenly in Israel, a predominantly Jewish state nestled in a sea of Islamic neighbors. Fleischman remarked that Israel's precarious location makes it all the more necessary for its leaders to defend it, by any means necessary, against threats to its existence.
"Why would we dismiss the assumption that if [Iran] acquired a nuclear weapon they would use it?" Fleischman asked. "If the West allows Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, the west will look like a paper tiger and that means that other rogue states will also seek nuclear weapons. This will lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons."
Israeli attacks on nuclear facilities in the region are not without precedent. In June 1981, Israeli airstrikes destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor, known as Osirak, about 10 miles southeast of Baghdad. Despite international condemnation of the attack – the United Nations Security Council declared it an unprecedented act of aggression – Israel's leaders felt the action was necessary as a defense from the threat of a nuclear Iraq.
To Fleischman, Iran's dedication to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic theocracy is crucial to any discussion of its geopolitical intentions. Fleischman contended that, unlike secular or Sunni Muslim nations in the Middle East, Iran's Shiite-dominated rulers are bent on the destruction of Israel.
The prospect of a nuclear Iran is not one that Israel can afford to live with, Fleischman argued. Despite the threat of mutually assured destruction if Iran were to detonate a nuclear weapon against Israel – an unofficial nuclear power – Fleischman believes that Iran would not hesitate to do the same against Israel.
"Israel views Iran as a threat because the Islamic revolution, from the outset, was not just an internal revolution, but it was a revolution that had an international agenda – namely, expanding the revolution beyond Iran," Fleischman said. "Iran has also objected to peace process. It opposed the peace agreement with Egypt and also objected to the peace negotiations with Palestinians in 1993."
While Fleischman made the case against a nuclear Iran, Professor Wagner focused on the legal implications of a potential Israeli strike against Iran. He pointed to two articles of the United Nations Charter to offer perspective: Article 2(4), which provides that, "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force," and Article 5, which provides that "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."
When these two articles are read together, it becomes a question of just how much violence a member state is required to suffer before self-defense is justified. In Fleischman's view, Iran's continued support for proxy attacks against Israeli interests – via Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Palestinian territories – justifies a preventative strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Professor Wagner, however, highlighted the opposing side's argument, which finds the conflict between Israel and Iran to be low-level and thus insufficient, under the United Nations charter, to justify an armed attack against Iran.
"There's a difference between actually being attacked and attacking prior to that occurring," Professor Wagner said, and he advised skepticism toward the notion that an attack against Iran would lead to an uprising of Iranian citizens against the Islamic regime. "One should not underestimate the power of uniting the people against outside enemies, perceived or real. When foreign policy becomes too muscular at any point in time, there is a backlash and a price to be paid."
Despite his skepticism against Iran and his hawkish stance, Fleischman concluded that he hopes there remains a peaceful solution to the situation. Without Iranian concessions to international demands that it give up its nuclear program, however, Fleischman does not think Israel can afford to remain idle while Iran inches closer toward obtaining a nuclear weapon.