Reza Nasri, an international lawyer and academic, is a Shelby Davis scholar in international law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (HEI) in Geneva. His work examines the role of the United Nations Security Council in the Iranian nuclear enrichment program, the legality of extraterritorial and unilateral sanctions, the lawfulness of attacking nuclear facilities under laws of armed conflict, cyber-attacks as a use of force, and the legal effects of threatening a party during the course of negotiations.
In this exclusive interview, he shares his thoughts and ideas about Iran’s relationship with international organizations.
Jahandad Memarian: Iran has always been cynical toward international organizations’ intentions. For example, Iran has refused requests by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, to assess that country’s human rights status first-hand. In fact, Tehran characterizes the appointment of a UN special rapporteur on Iran as a politically motivated decision. Iranian officials frequently insist that Shaheed’s reports are based on “a biased approach” that relies on unconfirmed reports and do not “merit public trust or confidence.” What explains the Iranian reaction to this issue?
Reza Nasri: Iran’s cynicism is not unfounded. There is a long history of friction and mistrust between Iran and some of the major international organizations that dates back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. For example, many influential people within the Iranian political establishment, as well as in the general public, vividly remember how the United Nations stayed indifferent to Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Iranian territory. Many also remember how, despite numerous pleas from Iran, all international mechanisms were deliberately put in standby mode as the Iraqi dictator dropped over 360 chemical bombs on Iranian military and civilian targets, causing over 100,000 casualties. So there is indeed a deep-rooted mistrust. And these organizations’ recent treatment of Iran over its nuclear program has only exasperated it.
Take the case of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for example. We all know that the IAEA is an important international organization, with a very sensitive monitoring task. It should in principle conduct its operations impartially, apolitically, and indiscriminately, in accordance with precise standards and in perfect compliance with its legal mandate. However, looking at its record with Iran since 2002, any fair observer would attest to how unjustly and subjectively it has acted toward the country. In fact, in many instances—mainly because of Western pressure—the IAEA’s conduct has been outright biased and unlawful.
Not only did the IAEA blatantly exceed its mandate vis-à-vis Iran during the process of inspections (namely by requesting to inspect facilities that fall outside its purview), but it went so far as to draft its reports based on dubious “information” provided by intelligence agencies and countries rival to Iran. Specifically, it used material from Israel, which is neither a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), nor—as anyone would concede—too enthusiastic about seeing the Iranian dossier resolved peacefully. Of course, the IAEA did not have the right to use these so-called “evidences” to incriminate Iran; but it did so anyway, at Iran’s great expense.
Likewise, the IAEA controversially transferred Iran’s file from the IAEA Board of Governors to the UN Security Council—an extraordinary escalatory measure that cost the Iranian economy billions of dollars. That also occurred in blatant violation of all applicable laws, as most serious experts and scholars have since demonstrated.
Or take a look at how the Security Council—an institution that must first and foremost encourage and facilitate multilateral diplomacy—set aside all its conflict-resolution mechanisms in the case of Iran to opt instead for a disproportionate and aggressive approach that solely revolved around “sanctions.” In fact, the Security Council directly jumped to its Chapter VII measures without establishing and clearly demonstrating how Iran’s nuclear program constituted a “threat to international peace and security,” as international law requires.
So in this context, it is not surprising that Iranian decision makers—and not just the hardliners, but also the moderate technocrats within the foreign policy establishment—are quite hesitant about allowing yet another institution to openly meddle in Iranian affairs. After all, they’d ask, if a complex and sophisticated “technical” organization such as the IAEA can so easily be derailed from its mandate and be used by political foes to undermine Iran’s interests, what guarantees do we have that a single individual—namely the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur—would act independently? How could we trust that the Special Rapporteur’s real agenda is not in fact to recommend Iran’s referral back to the Security Council—this time on human rights grounds—once we’ve finally settled the nuclear file?
In my opinion, these are legitimate questions that need to be addressed. In fact, I believe that world powers must genuinely come to the realization that misusing international organizations as political tools does indeed have long-term consequences, namely by compromising the credibility and function of the “international system” as a whole. If they really want Iran or other countries to fully partake in this system for the sake of human rights, or for other considerations, they must sincerely engage in its reform or revise their own practice.
Jahandad Memarian: Iran has behaved similarly toward international media outlets, non-governmental organizations, and independent think thanks. How do you explain Iran’s cynical attitude?
Reza Nasri: From Iran’s perspective, these organizations have also played a central role in fuelling and sustaining the nuclear “crisis”—which some commentators have rightly dubbed a “manufactured crisis.” Some of them have systematically tainted Iran’s image in the media and actively promoted a narrative that prescribes war and sanctions as the only means to deal with the country. In fact, Iranophobia has become a real industry in the United States in the past few years. Millions of dollars in public and private funds are allocated each year to boost these organizations, whose sole purpose is to single out Iran and portray it as a threat to international security.
You may find it interesting to know that South Korea—not North Korea, but South Korea!—had been found by the IAEA in 2004 to have enriched uranium to weapons-grade levels and to have pursued a secretive weapons program in flagrant violation of its international obligations. This was revealed in 2004—two years after the Iranian nuclear “crisis” began. But public opinion never heard of it. None of these organizations talked of South Korea as a rogue state. None of them systematically seized the media to portray South Korea as a nuclear threat. None of them organized panel after panel in Washington, DC to decry South Korea’s blow to the non-proliferation regime. None of these think tanks even mentioned the fact that South Korea’s breach of its nuclear obligations had by far surpassed Iran’s—a country that in fact was never found to have had a weapons program.
So, there is indeed an undeniable malicious intention vis-à-vis Iran, which is mainly fuelled by Iran’s geopolitical foes in the region that seek the country’s isolation. Against this background, it is understandable that Iran doesn’t view these institutions very positively either. In fact, their project runs directly against Iran’s aspirations to renew its ties with Western countries.
Jahandad Memarian: In Washington, some believe that the rhetoric of threat has a strong impact on Iran and can be used as an effective tool in negotiations. They believe that the hawks’ aggressive policies can create an effective good cop/bad cop dynamic that enhances Obama’s diplomacy. Do you believe that such threats can force Iran eventually to succumb to the international community’s demands?
Reza Nasri: To address your question and illustrate the effects of threats in international relations, allow me a small detour into the current Ukrainian crisis. We often hear these days from U.S. and European officials that the Crimean referendum of independence was “illegal” under international law because it took place under the coercive presence and intimidation of Russian forces. Those who invoke this argument have a valid point. In fact, their point relies on a universally recognized legal principle, which posits that “coercion nullifies true consent.” In simple terms, that means that any “agreement” that comes out of duress, threats, and intimidation has no legal value and hence is voidable. The provisions of the UN Charter, the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and customary international law—as well as the International Court of Justice—all support this position.
Now let’s come back to the Iranian situation: While Iran is sitting across the table negotiating over its nuclear program with representatives of the P5+1, the U.S. Congress and other Western officials still talk with impunity of coercing the country into more concessions with more sanctions and more “credible” threats of military force, which they unabashedly tag as an immovable “option on the table.”
So one should ask, why would the above legal principle (the prohibition of threats and duress) apply to the Crimean referendum but not to the Iran-P5+1 negotiation process? Why would the act of coercion, threat, and duress nullify the results of a popular referendum in one case but “consolidate” the outcome of a negotiation process in another?
The truth is that threats and coercion—whether military or economic—are incompatible with fundamental legal principles and the notion of good faith, especially in times of negotiations. Threatening a negotiating partner with more pressure, more sanctions, and more insecurity is not only contrary to core principles of law and morality, but it also has practical legal ramifications that could emerge in the long-term.
Indeed, proponents of this approach should bear in mind that even if Iran does cave in to the illegal threats of force and sanctions—and if it actually concedes to a nuclear agreement procured under duress by the Congress—it could very well move to nullify that agreement at later date in perfect compliance with international law. In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, what the U.S. Congress and its radicals seem to view today as valuable “leverage” in the ongoing negotiations with Iran could very well turn into the Achilles’ heel of any future arrangement.
So, in order to reinforce the legal position of its own administration, the U.S. Congress should seriously abstain from adopting any measure that could be construed by Iran as coercion, threat, or intimidation. In other words, congressional leaders should understand that by ratcheting up the rhetoric or by adopting or threatening to adopt more sanctions against a party to the negotiations—whether in the name of non-proliferation or under the guise of fighting terrorism—they are just weakening the legal position of their own government and its allies and jeopardizing the sustainability of any eventual agreement. If their intention is genuinely to reach an understanding with Iran, then they should just let the negotiations proceed in a calm and tension-free environment.