An attack on Iran? What should the UK do?

“What should the UK do when the US challenges or violates international norms? This question lay behind the controversy surrounding the invasion of Iraq and it may be asked if the US attacks Iran.”

This is how I started my pitch to the British Academy.  If we are to believe yesterday’s report in the Guardian, then the hypothetical scenario of an attack on Iran is a little closer to becoming reality.  So, should the UK, and more specifically the centre-left parties (including the Lib Dems), support US military action? How does ‘the shadow of Iraq’ influence answers to this question?  This how the abstract of my BA proposal continued:

“The realist argument that UK’s American policy is dictated by power politics is unsatisfactory. Normative arguments did influence policy on Iraq. Blair argued, as he had on Kosovo, that the moral and political case for war was ‘obvious’ from a centre-left perspective.  The political and moral imperative was for him more important than the legal requirement to respect the outcome of multilateral deliberation.”

This suggests there are three imperatives that a British centre-left foreign policy should consider before supporting the American use of force.  First the political imperative (is it in the national interest), second, the moral imperative (is it the right thing to do) and third the legal imperative (does it have the backing of the UN Security Council). 

A centre-left party cannot support military action if these imperatives are not in alignment. This poses three scenarios:

A. a legal/moral case but not a political one – the centre-left could not support military action that had moral and legal mandate but was contrary to the national interest because that would be undemocratic (assuming democracy is about protecting the interests of your constituents) and politically unsustainable. 

B. a legal/political case but not a moral one – the centre-left could not support military action that was presented as being in the national interest and having a legal mandate if there were moral objections (e.g. a disproportionate response to the threat of Iranian centrifuges).  Presumably, the centre-left would advocate using the UK veto at the Security Council in this situation, which would of course deny the US any legal mandate and the centre-left parties would counter the claim that any such action was in the national interest by arguing there would be blowback (e.g. increased terrorist threat) to immoral actions.

C. a moral/political case but not a legal one – the centre-left could not support military action that was presented as having a political and moral case but did not have a Security Council mandate either because the enabling resolution could not get nine affirmative votes or because one of the P5 exercises its right to veto. The left argues that to support military action in these terms is to support imperialist aggression.

The last scenario is most problematic for centre-left opinion.  As Iraq showed, the centre-left is split on the significance of the Security Council mandate.  All 53 Liberal Democrats and 139 Labour MPs voted against the Iraq War.  Among the reasons for doing so was the fact that US-led military action against Iraq did not have clear UN support. Yet 245 Labour MPs backed Blair who, with the support of the Conservatives, then committed UK forces to the invasion of Iraq.  The argument that there was no legal mandate encourages the conclusion that the Iraq invasion was an act of imperialist aggression.

We would have seen a similar split emerge concerning Libya had the Security Council vetoed what became Resolution 1973.  It didn’t, and Libya is now held up in some quarters as a model liberal intervention. What emerges from Libya then is a cross-party commitment (in rhetoric at least) to the importance of the UN Security Council mandate.  Resolution 1973 had been passed by the time Ed Miliband spoke in the House of Commons on 23 March. He did not therefore need to address the question of what Labour would do if there was a Security Council veto but he did say this: “It is important that we stick to the terms of the UN resolution as we seek to maintain the coalition we have built on that resolution”.

Now, it has been argued that the NATO-led coalition did NOT stick to the terms of the mandate.  It is further argued that by going beyond the UN mandate NATO helped to fracture Security Council unity on the Arab Spring, which manifested itself in the Russian/Chinese veto on Syria.  The fact that the centre-left parties did not seriously question this mission creep from protection of civilians to regime change suggests that they were again happy to ‘imply’ legal authority action that is not explicitly mandated in Security Council resolutions.  I say ‘again’ because this is how Blair legally justified the Iraq War i.e. the UK couldn’t get ‘the second resolution’, but it could imply from Resolution 1441 that the authority to use force existing in Resolution 678 (1990) could be revived.

This is an example of what the literature calls ‘counter-restrictionist’ arguments (see Nick Wheeler, ‘Saving Strangers’, Mark Phythian, ‘The Labour Party, War and International Relations’ for examples).  That is, centre-left parties can square their commitment to the UN with their commitment to do what they see as politically and morally right by noting that there is more than one legal path to war.  The explicit authorization of a new resolution is, as the Attorney General put it in 2003, the ‘safest’ legal argument, but it is not the only one.  If the resolution providing the safest mandate is vetoed we can, the counter-restrictionist argues, still use force because we can imply legal authority from previous resolutions or from ‘the purpose’ of the UN charter.

These kind of arguments can be useful when the P5 veto is unreasonable.  But there are potentially legitimacy costs to counter-restrictionist arguments and they can (as the Syrian example demonstrates) have their own kind of blowback.  In addition, there is the question of knowing when the P5 veto is in fact unreasonable.  Again the centre-left seems split on this.  I allude to this in my article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.  There is the Blairite approach that is so confident in its own authority on the political and moral case for war that it can declare a P5 veto to be unreasonable without reference to other votes in the Security Council. On the other hand, there is Robin Cook’s position, which points to the balance of opinion in the Security Council and other multilateral institutions as an indicator of whether a veto is unreasonable and whether military action can be legally justified.

If the Guardian is right, and we are moving closer to a military strike against Iran, then we can expect to hear a lot more discussion along these lines.

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About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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