Iran, Israel and The Law 30

One of my passionate convictions is a belief in international law to govern relations between nations and to establish basic rules of humanitarian conduct within nations.

A comment on my last posting asked by what right the Royal Navy was intercepting vessels carrying narcotics on the High Seas. In one sense the answer is straightforward, and contained in Article 108 of the UN Convention on The Law of The Sea:


Illicit traffic in narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances

1. All States shall cooperate in the suppression of illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances engaged in by ships on the high seas contrary to international conventions.

2. Any State which has reasonable grounds for believing that a ship flying its flag is engaged in illicit traffic in narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances may request the cooperation of other States to suppress such traffic.

That is slightly more complicated than it sounds. It is rather ambiguous about whether you need the permission of the flag state (the state where the ship is registered) before you can board a vessel on the High Seas. The most obvious interpretation might be that para 2 indicates you do need permission, and para 1 indicates the flag state should give it.

In most cases you would try to get permission of the flag state before acting against one of its ships, but that may not be practicable in a fast moving operation. The situation is complicated by the fact that the law presumes flag states to be responsible. Although the some of the worst of the abuse has been ameliorated, that is of course far from the case. Liberia and Panama were the most famous examples where the corrupt government of a petty or failed state

sold the right to register ships to unscrupulous businessmen, who granted the flag to any owner who wished to escape serious regulation of the safety of the vessel and crew, qualification requirements for officers, union recognition, and environmental and other regulation which may be practiced by a “real” flag state. The Liberian shipping register was not based in, and had no connection to Liberia other than the formal payment and larger backhanders for the rights.

For those with a Third World Good, First World Bad view of international relations, it is worth noting that attempts to reform the blatant abuse were frustrated for decades by the G77 in the UN.

I am not aware of any case law on the subject. It seems improbable that any flag state would want to go to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea over an intercept on the High Seas which did net a haul of drugs. But if an innocent vessel – let’s say a Venezuelan one – is boarded without permission of Venezuela on the High Seas, the law may be clarified.

The point is an important one; an example is the Proliferation Security Initiative. This was a Bush Blair plan to intercept ships going to North Korea on the High Seas and search them for nuclear components. Interestingly the initial plan adopted in September 2003 was for an international naval patrol by UK, US, Australia and others to intercept ships going to North Korea to prevent passage of “Narcotics and WMD”.

Now there is no right at all in international law to stop vessels on the High Seas and search them for WMD components. But there is the duty under UNCLOS to co-operate against narcotics trafficking. Bush and Blair cannot seriously have expected anybody to believe that their scheme was designed to prevent narcotics being smuggled into North Korea. Plainly the inclusion of narcotics was intended to abuse the powers under that head in order to search for something else. In fact, the Proliferation Security Initiative plainly required a Security Council Resolutin, and China made plain that Bush/Blair were not going to get away with that one.

Another comment on the same thread alluded to the Israeli ramming of an aid/campaigning ship en route to Gaza, and suggested there is no such thig as international law.

Well, the Israeli action was plainly illegal in any number of ways. A naval attack on a peaceful civilian ship not in time of war, a denial of innocent passage or freedom of the High Seas (depending exactly where it took place) and a subsequent failure of the duty to render assistance to a vessel in distress. It is not that there is no international law; the problem is enforcing it.

From 1945 for the next 50 years, international law made tremendous strides in establishing basic rights and norms and regulating relations between states. International judicial institutions made hundreds of landmark judgements, which were indeed in the vast majority of cases complied with. The US had a history of holding out against such developments and then, a couple of decades after everyone else, signing up (as with the Convention on the Law of the Sea).

Then came the Bush/Blair disaster. With Russia in near catatonic economic shock and China just starting to emerge, Bush/Blair argued that the might of a single military superpower equalled right, and that the moral convictions of divinely inspired leaderhip overrode international law. The illegal invasion of Iraq, the use of torture, the abjuring of the Geneva Conventions, were just part of the Bush/Blair attack on the whole concept of being bound by law. It was a Neitzschean view of the US President as Hero.

With the UK and half of Europe following the money, the pier of the largest bulwark of support for the concept of international law was fatally corroded.

One key aspect of the development of international law prior to this was a growing acceptance of the notion that at some point international law obtains a universality, whether or not states have signed up to the specific instrument. This is separate to the question of the number of ratifications needed to bring the Treaty into force, though that is a necessary prior step. Put another way, notions encapsulated in treaties pass into customary international law.

This is, in fact, common sense. Nuremburg confirmed the principle – it would not have been taken as a defence for the Nazi leaders to say that they did not subscribe to the same system of morality as the rest of the world.

Which brings me to Israel. The fact that Israel is one of the handful of countries not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, does not make it any less illegal for Israel to ram civilian vessels. Equally – and contrary to the point made by another commenter on an earlier entry – Israeli nuclear weapons are not legal, just because Israel has not ratified the nuclear non-proliferation treaties. Israel has no more right than Nazi Germany to choose to be an aggressive rogue state, and cannot simply claim to be above the framework of international law.

It is, of course, perfectly possible for behaviour to be legal yet still reprehensible. It is worth noting that it is perfectly legal for Iran to develop medium range missiles. But to test fire them now is an obvious provocation from a regime that is fanatical and deeply irresponsible.

The annoying thing about Ahmadinejad’s speech at the UN was that there were whole swathes of it with which I was entirely in agreement. At least he did not get into holocaust denial on this occasion: if he could have further refrained from the couple of sentences which were indeed anti-semitic, he would have made the walkout appear unjustified and puerile, But the man is plainly deranged. (I expect that Roman Polanski, whose mother died in Auschwitz, would be surprised at the claim that the Holocuast was an invention.)

While Iran is entitled to develop its missiles, to develop nuclear warheads is illegal. I have maintained all along that Iran is indeed seeking to do this, and the admittance of its secret nstallation is pretty hard to construe as part of peaceful nuclear power development.

Incidentally, this is what a secret nuclear installation looks like.

I can think of no justification at all for taking any measures against Iran over its nuclear programme, that we do not take against Israel for its major illegal nuclear arsenal.

The signs are good for the developing US/Russian rapprochement on Iran, and I regard that as a good thing. It moves us further from a scenario in which the US may be involved in a military attack on Iran, and leaves Gordon Brown out of line in the ferocity of his anti-Iranian rhetoric. I expect that New Labour feel they could use a war before the general election, but I don’t think they will get one.

Thanks to Tony for the link.

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30 thoughts on “Iran, Israel and The Law

  • paul

    “But to test fire them now is an obvious provocation from a regime that is fanatical and deeply irresponsible”

    Easy to say when you arent being constantly threatened by 3 lunatic countries who all have nuclear weapons.

    Just reminding people that if they start something, their nose will get bloodied in return.

  • Tom Welsh

    The terms “fanatical” and “deeply irresponsible” do seem very subjective, Craig.

    Presumably there would be little point in singling out the Iranian leadership as being fanatical and deeply irresponsible unless this made it unusual among national leaderships.

    Can you honestly say that the British, US, and Israeli leaderships are not also fanatical and deeply irresponsible? Or does the fact that they have caused millions of unnecessary deaths between them, while Iran has caused a handful at most, count for nothing?

  • Andrew Gallagher

    it would not have been taken as a defence for the Nazi leaders to say that they did not subscribe to the same system of morality as the rest of the world.

    Nor should it, and nor should Israel be excused attacks on civilian vessels – these are matters which would be rightly condemned no matter who was involved. The comparison doesn’t extend to nukes though. Israel’s are only “illegal” on a technicality (which they themselves have not subscribed to), not as a matter of universal morality. It’s hard to argue that China and Israel should be held to differing moral standards just because China managed to get grandfather rights. The NPT has already conceded in principle that some countries are more equal than others.

  • anticant

    Please read Nietzsche before dragging him in as an irrelevant Aunt Sally on an otherwise generally admirable post. Far from being a proto-Nazi (as misrepresented by his Hitler-loving sister), he was a humanist thinker of great originality who had the utmost contempt for bombastic Bismarckian “Deutschland uber alles” rhetoric, and was especially scathing about German anti-Semitism.

    As for Ahmadinejad, he is not deranged so much as deluded by the religious twaddle which he imbibed with his mother’s milk.

    As I keep saying, religion is the problem, not the answer.

  • brian

    “I can think of no justification at all for taking any measures against Iran over its nuclear programme, that we do not take against Israel for its major illegal nuclear arsenal.”

    One justification might be that if we take out Iran’s nuclear installations there’s sod all they can do about it, whereas if we take out Israel’s nuclear installations we’ll eating the fat end of 50 Megatons.

  • Craig

    Anticant –

    I don’t want to argue over whether Ahmadinejad is deranged or deluded. But those who deny he is either are yet again falling for the delusion that anyone who is anti-American has to be good.

    I have studied Neitzsche – tlaking of the deranged.

  • MJ

    Good point brian, gets to the nitty gritty.

    “…the admittance of its secret nstallation is pretty hard to construe as part of peaceful nuclear power development”.

    Disagree. If I were only a few hundred miles from a psychotic gangster state that had already threatened to destroy my existing nuclear plants, it would only be sensible to build any new ones secretly and very well concealed.

  • JimmyGiro

    I was unaware of Israel working on Hydrogen bombs (according to the YouTube link). If it is true, then the west should consider a pre-emptive strike.

    Regular fission bombs are inherently dirty with radioactive fallout; so a nuclear exchange within a common geographic vicinity is mutually bad, hence a last resort.

    But a single hydrogen bomb has potentially no upper limit of explosive power – as you can add as much tritium and lithium as your device can hold – with the only drawback being the radioactive fallout of one little fission bomb, as detonator. Hence the ‘mutual’ calamity of a purely fissile bomb exchange, no longer inhibits the owner of the H-bomb.

  • Anonymous

    (I expect that Roman Polanski, whose mother died in Auschwitz, would be surprised at the claim that the Holocuast was an invention.)

    I wonder what Ahmadinejad thinks about sodomising 13 year old girls?

  • anticant

    I don’t want to argue about that either, Craig. I don’t go in for all the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ stuff. I do think, though, that religious fanatics of any stripe – whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish – are a menace not merely to world peace, but to humanity’s survival.

    Nietzsche was insane for the last few years of his life (due, it’s said, to syphilis). But before he went mad, he was a very intersting thinker. I’ve read most of his works (in translation), and don’t think he should be dismissed as contemptuously as you do.

    By the way, I hope you received my parcel.

  • Johan van Rooyen

    Craig, you might not want to argue over whether Amdinejad is deranged or deluded but it would certainly help if you could substantiate that notion a bit. You find it annoying that you agree with large parts of his UN statement. If you are right about him, you ought to be downright worried!

  • Craig


    I wasn’t annoyed that I agreed with large parts of his speech, I was annoyed that he couldn’t refrain from spoiling some good points by anti-semitism.

    Anyone who thinks that deliberate provocation of a vastly superior military power is a good policy is deluded. Anyone who denies the holocaust is deluded.

    In reply to the anonymous one, I don’t know offhand where the Iranian regime stands on sex with 13 year old girls. I know it hangs gays.

  • Carlyle Moulton

    Given that unacceptable climate change due to global warming is now inevitable and that this will create resource shortages as places were food can be grown and adequate water is available relocate from where people currently live to elsewhere and that this will cause resource wars, any government that is not seriously considering acquisition of nuclear arms is betraying its citizens.

    The idea that nuclear arms except those in the possession of certain privileged nations are illegal is absurd.

  • Craig


    I agree with your last point – but the answer is toget rid of nuclear weapons, not for everyone to acquire them. The proliferation of nuclear weapons to more and more countries will make nuclear war increasingly likely.

  • Carlyle Moulton


    1/ A victim of crime cannot also be a perpetrator of crime.

    2/ A perpetrator of crime cannot also be a victim of crime.

    Of course the previous two propositions constitute nonsense, but I suspect many including both Ahmadinejad and most Israelis believe them.

    In the case of Ahmadinejad, he concludes that the holocaust could not have happened because of proposition 2 together with the crimes Israeli Jews have committed against the Palestinians.

    Israelis and their supporters use proposition 1 and the holocaust to prove that nothing Israel has done to the Palestinians is in any way criminal.

  • Johan van Rooyen


    “I wasn’t annoyed that I agreed with large parts of his speech, I was annoyed that he couldn’t refrain from spoiling some good points by anti-semitism.”

    Point taken, though having just skim read the speech I found no evidence of anti-semitism – if I recall you’re not one to equate anti-Zionism with anti-semitism.

    “Anyone who thinks that deliberate provocation of a vastly superior military power is a good policy is deluded.”

    Where’s the provocation – must we all just submit to bullies? Cuba’s done OK, Venezuela’s on the up and up, you’ve destroyed Jack Straw’s credibility and, so far, lived to tell the tale!

    “Anyone who denies the holocaust is deluded.”

    I’ve not examined this in great detail so I stand to be corrected but my understanding is that Ahmadinejad’s point is that the Holocaust has been turned into a fetish and not that it simply never occurred.

    On your separate point about Iran hanging gays. It hangs people who happen to be gay, not because they are gay!

  • Carlyle Moulton


    It is a mistake to try to solve insoluble problems. When one attempts to do so one only creates worse problems.

    There is as much chance of creating a world free of nuclear weapons as there is of getting a world free of mind altering substances other than caffeine, ethyl alcohol and nicotine.

    Do you seriously think that the USA and Russia will ever give up all their weapons? If the answer to this is question is no then why should China, if China does not why would India and if India does not why would Pakistan? Whether the UK, France or Israel would be willing to give up their weapons is another question, I really don’t think Israel would and if I were an Israeli I would not want Israel to do so.

  • MJ

    I suppose the logical conclusion of that is that the best we can hope for is that nuclear weapons are distributed in such a way to provide balance and an uneasy peace. It’s called MAD. In which case we should hope Iran gets a hefty nuclear arsenal ASAP because it would have a civilising influemce on Israel and give the US second thoughts about tramping any further over the Mid East. Sounds quite good actually, come to think of it..

  • Neil Craig

    Not sure why you say that up till 1995ish international law was being strengthened. By that stage the western powers had trampled on international law by “recognising” regimes in Croatia & Bosnia run by unrepentent (ex-)Nazis publicly committed to genocide. As an instance of irony our catspaw Tudjman was a historian who had both denied the Holocaust & said it was carried out by the Jews.

    Such support would have been illegal under the UN Charter as well as the Helsinki Treaty even had it not been done for the purpose of promoting racial genocide. By comparison the Iraq war was simply a less criminal sequel.

    Milosevic’s only crime was to be innocent – something which no NATO leader can claim.

    I think you are legally wrong to say that Israel, or anybody else, is subject to a treaty they didn’t sign – in that case their legal rights & duties are the same as they were initially.

    In any case you are totally wrong if you suggest that any British government has shown 1,000th as much respect for the rule of law or indeed human rights as the Israelis. Or consequently that there are any circumstances under which a UK, guilty of war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing, child sex slavery & dissecting living people can morally censure.

  • Anonymous

    Craig it’s the anonymous one again – I don’t know where they stand off hand either nor do I know (or care) how Polanski would react to someone denying the Holocaust. I did however wonder why he was mentioned in this blog at all…..

  • glenn

    Craig –

    Anyone who denies the historical fact of the holocaust is indeed a crackpot, but Ahmadinejad (for all his many faults) was not actually doing this, no more than the false claim that he wanted to see Israel “wiped off the map”. Take a look at this:

    It goes a long way to explaining what “myth” actually means in the context intended. It means something far more subtle than “fabrication”, which is how our ears interpret the word. More accurate would be “story” or “tale” that a people put together to describe their own history. “Story” does not mean “fable”, and here “myth” does not mean “lie”.


  • Sabretache


    You may (or may not) have noticed my increasingly rare engagements with your blog over the past 18 months or so. There is a reason and this post epitomises it. Maybe it’s a reluctance on your part to entirely burn your bridges with the UK Foreign Policy Establishment but I can’t help noticing a certain trimming and tacking in the direction of orthodoxy which, given your earlier track record, I find unsettling. Specifically:

    1. Your take on Ahmadinejad. There were NOT “a couple of sentences that were indeed anti-semitic” (my blog quotes the part that cued the walk-out in full). He is NOT a ‘Holocaust Denier’ – that knee-jerk demonising catch-all used to silence anyone who is anti-ZIONIST. If an epithet must be employed then he is a revisionist on a subject which, in view of its elevation to ‘tablets of stone’ status in less than 60 years and the latter day crimes it so effectively whitewashes, cries to the heavens for some calm reasoned revision.

    2. Your mention of Roman Polanski in this context is a bit sick considering the crime he pleaded guilty to.

    3.”… the admittance of the secret installation is pretty hard to construe as part of peaceful nuclear power development….”

    Iran has not broken IAEA rules in delaying notification of the plant until 180 days before commissioning. Considering that its Nantaz enrichment plant has been the subject of bombing threats by Israel and/or the US on an almost weekly basis this past 4 years, it should be no surprise that they are preparing a plant less vulnerable to being bombed. Also, you know as well as I do that both the UK and US SIS’s have known about its construction right from the start.

    4. I think you are badly mis-reading signs of US/Russian rapprochement on Iran – or on anything else for that matter.

    5. I find your obvious admiration for the Post WW2 Nuremberg (Victors justice) trials distasteful. If you really do consider them models for our edification then, frankly I have to seriously doubt your judgement on much else.

    Try a little less Juan Cole. The man is a Baha’i and in spite of some damn good stuff elsewhere, it colours views on Iran to the point of tunnel vision.

  • daydreamer

    Thanks SJB for providing the link to Ahmadinejad’s speech. Always important to review the evidence before wading into debate. I too fail to see any anti-semitic comments. I assume the criticisms of the “Zionist regime” are what are being taken by some to be anti-semitic. A disappointing position to take, as the term Zionist regime is probably a fair description of the Israeli rulership. Zionist is not a religious insult – it is the name given to those who believe in Zionism, and the actions and words of the Israeli state suggest that Zionism is indeed their perspective.

    I would be very interested if anybody could provide links to quotes of Ahmadinejad’s (alleged) holocaust denial. I’ve read him on the subject, and what he was arguing was that the holocaust is being unfairly used as a moral justification for, well, various things by the Israeli state and it’s supporters. He also made the (reasonable, to my mind) point that the facts of the holocaust are taken by many as sacred and cannot be reviewed. To even ask if the number of dead may be inaccurate seems to constitute holocaust denial to some – no other historical or scientific fact, theory or detail is above re-appraisal. What makes the holocaust so special that you can’t even make enquiries, never mind directly challenge what is currently believed?

    This is not intended as an apology for Ahmadinejad – there is much about the Iranian regime that is thoroughly abhorrent, if even some of the reports are to be believed.

  • dreoilin

    I have seen Ahmadinejad misquoted (and this explained by native speakers of Farsi living in the West) so many times, I’m thinking of learning some of the language myself, for my own satisfaction.

    When I saw Brown, flanked by Sarko and Obama, talking about Iran’s “serial deception”, I switched off the TV. If Bush spending $473 million on covert operations inside Iran to destabalize their government is not “deception” I don’t know what is.

    I am wondering if this report, “Tehran dumps dollar for euro”, from 21 September, has anything to do with the recent ourbursts against Iran:

    It’s not yet a matter of oil transactions in Euros but any momentum towards this by OPEC will obviously infuriate the US – and greatly affect their economy and the dollar reserve currency status. It’s worth noting that Saddam Hussein had recently switched, before the invasion of that country.

    I’m no economist/currency expert, but I do get the gist of the matter and I suspect recent threats of sanctions or worse has more to do with currency matters than any nuclear facilities which the US and UK knew about (“for years” according to Miliband) and Iran reported quite properly to the IAEA. That’s the American side, the Iraeli side speaks for itself, I think.

    This link is also relevant:

  • Steve Abbott

    I enjoyed this article, and I believe Craig makes some good points. I disagree on several points too.

    Ahmedinejad did not threaten Israel nor deny the holocaust. One needs to be highly skeptical of translations of both coloquial expressions and of specialised words such as “myth”.

    I have heard Ahmedinejad respond to challenges of his statements regarding the holocaust enough times to be clear, at least that he is avoiding holocaust denial, while also avoiding the indignity of responding to accusations of having done so. (something that if you think about it, most world leaders practice) I have also heard him repeat many times, the other explanation of what he is saying; that the holocaust has been built into a story that justifies serious injustices against people who had no connection to the holocaust.

    No evidence was ever presented for claims of a fraudulent election, other than repetitions of what western powers and Irani opposition leaders would prefer to believe. When Irani authorities responded with a statistical analysis and explanation of the phenomenon of greater numbers of voters than registered in some towns, the western media misquoted both the statements and the statistics presented, in order to make them appear as a confession of wrong-doing. Again, deluging the western media with mistranslations was used to demonise Iran.

    In 2005 to 2007, Iran conformed voluntarily to additional inspection protocols that had not been ratified, for their nuclear installations. They had been persuaded to do this by European powers as “confidence building measures”, in return for interceding with the US to stop its aggression. In the event, when the aggression continued, the Europeans did not back Iran nor recognise their voluntary measures. It was therefore fully justified for Iran to discontinue those measures.

    Without those voluntary measures, the new enrichment plant is totally within Iran’s NPT obligations, has been disclosed in timely fashion by Iran, and they have stated that it will be placed under inspection.

    That the western leaders claimed to have discovered it two days later, that they claimed it was illegal, and that they pretended that they needed to demand inspections were all lies. These lies were entirely consistent with previous lies told by the west to falsely imply non-compliance on Iran’s part.

    Craig may believe that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, but I see no evidence for that that is not based on some or all of the above-mentioned lies. If true evidence existed, why would they be resorting to those lies?

    All the best to all, and thanks for an excellent discussion.

  • Sabretache

    As a counter to the less than complimentary remarks about Juan Cole in my above comment, his latest offering – “Top Things you Think You Know about Iran that are not True” is a pretty fair trot through western misconceptions about Iran.

    I heartily recommend it to Craig and everyone else.

    In particular note Iran’s military budget is less in absolute terms than, for example, Sweden, Singapore and Greece; in per-capita terms it is minuscule. Compare that to the country that Ahmadinejad is alleged (falsely) to be determined to “wipe off the map” !

  • Sabretache

    Don’t want to hog this but Joh Pilger’s latest in The New Statesman is another must read on Western Psy-Ops to prepare the ground for whatever further ‘measures’ have been decided upon vis-a-vis Iran

    ‘Psy-ops’ – that is an accurate description of the constant diet of MSM output we are getting where pretty much everything on Juan Coles’ list above is assumed gospel.

  • Polo

    The USA has every reason to fear the replacement of the dollar by the euro. The wider the use of the euro the more reserve dollars will be cashed in and the USA’s ability to finance wars by printing dollars will be circumscribed. It would also lead to the denomination of oil prices in a “floating currency” – God forbid. Not to mention the affront to the USA’s exaggerated sense of its own importance (important though it is). Iran’s espousal of the euro may well have influenced the timing of the latest anti-nuclear rant. The euro may well be the greater threat to the USA in the longer term.

    The moral aspects of all of this are also very interesting. One could argue that, irrespective of the undesirability of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and given the unwillingness of the “international community” to rein in the Israelis, Indians, Pakistanis, North Koreans etc., and the clear and present threat to Iran’s independence, that, of all the countries around, Iran had a relative moral claim to developing nuclear weapons. Sufficient to note,for the moment, that Iran is in full compliance with its treaty/IAEA obligations.

    Netanyahu’s indictment of the WWII Allies’ response to Hitler’s doodlebugs is well taken. He makes the point to contrast that response with Israel’s “civilised” response to the Hamas rockets. It’s only when you actually look at what the Israelis did on the ground that you realise that he is, in effect, making the case for hauling his own country up before the ICC.

    I had long ago come to the conclusion that the Jews had over-cashed-in their chips on the Holocaust (bad as that event was) and that they were now perverting its memory by their own atrocities. Having now read one of the above links analysing the basis for applying the “Holocaust denier” label to Ahmadinejad, I realise that the term “myth of the Holocaust” expresses perfectly what I had felt for some time.

    I wonder what my Shabbas Goyim relations, long since departed, would make of all of this. I suppose they would have to take consolation in the fact that not all Jews are Zionists and hope that the objects of their good works in the past turned out to be some of the good guys.

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