Jun 1 2012

U.S. Media Duck Legality of Attacking Iran

‘Supreme international crime’ not worth discussing


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Daniella Zalcman

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Daniella Zalcman

The drums of war beat ever louder as President Barack Obama talks of “all options” being “on the table” if Iran doesn’t halt its nuclear fuel processing program, and as Israel keeps threatening an air attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. But nowhere, perhaps, is this drumbeat louder than in the U.S. media, where it’s almost impossible to find any mention of the fact that such an attack, whether by U.S. or Israeli forces, would violate international law.

An unprovoked attack against another nation is a war of aggression—“the supreme international crime,” as the Nuremberg Tribunal held in its judgment of the leaders of the Third Reich. One of the rare mentions of this fact was an L.A. Times op-ed article (3/5/12) by Yale law and political science professor Bruce Ackerman, headlined “The Legal Case Against Attacking Iran.”

Two other short pieces highlighted foreign ministers’ objections to the U.S. and Israeli threats: a brief AP article that ran in the Washington Post on April 2 under the headline “Russian FM Warns Against Attack on Iran, Says Pre-emptive Strike Would Violate International Law,” and a Yahoo! News report (2/23/12) headlined “UN Should Weigh In on Legality of Iran Strike, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Tells Yahoo! News.”

Media have been awash in stories all year about Iran’s nuclear energy program, and threats by both Israeli and U.S. leaders to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities on the grounds that they could be used to make a nuclear bomb. But these print and broadcast news reports have scrupulously avoided mentioning that such attacks would be illegal under the UN Charter, a treaty approved by the U.S. Senate in 1945 (and signed by Israel in 1949).

As Ackerman explained in his L.A. Times piece, the UN Charter, as a signed treaty approved “overwhelmingly” by the U.S. Senate, is an integral part of U.S. law, which means the president is “constitutionally required to abide by [the Charter’s] Article 51 [which] allows states to use military force in self-defense only when responding to an ‘armed attack.’”

Ackerman noted that the U.S. and most other nations have long held that a nation could also legally attack another nation pre-emptively if it felt it faced an “imminent threat.” But he added that the long-standing interpretation in international law of “imminent,” dating to 1842, when Daniel Webster was secretary of state, has been that the threat must be “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.”

No one, not even the most bellicose members of the Israeli government or the most ardent U.S. neo-con, claims that Iran currently has a nuclear weapon. And both Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials say the country, which appears to have no weapons program underway (Extra!, 1/12), is at least a year or more away from having one, if such a program were to be started up—and an operational bomb would be even further off (Reuters, 3/23/12).

As Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general during the Reagan administration, tells Extra!: “It is nothing short of bizarre to claim, as the Obama administration is doing, that the mere capability to make a bomb is justification for a pre-emptive attack. That’s a recipe for perpetual war. Almost any country could have the capability to make a bomb. They are torturing the word ‘imminent’ to the point that it has no meaning.”

And yet, in news report after news report about the purported Iran nuclear “threat” in U.S. mainstream media, there is no mention of the UN Charter, or of its strictures against the launching of aggressive war. (Even the “threat…of force” is forbidden under the charter, a stricture that the U.S. continually violates—Salon, 3/3/12.) Nor do journalistic accounts refer to the Nuremberg Principles, which define aggressive war as a “crime against peace” and as such, a violation of international law.

Not that the media haven’t had opportunities to address this issue. In late February, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota told Yahoo!’s Lauren Rozen (2/23/12) that he had asked the UN to (in Rozen’s words) “consider weighing in on the legality of a possible pre-emptive strike on Iran.” He suggested that such an attack would be “contrary to international law.”

What should have been an important voice questioning a U.S. or Israeli attack was totally ignored by the rest of U.S. media. Yet only a month before, the New York Times (1/23/12) saw news value in a piece by correspondent Simon Romero headlined “Iranian Adviser Accuses Brazil of Ruining Relations”—surely a far less significant story than the foreign minister of Latin America’s largest nation saying that threats by the U.S. and Israel to attack Iran could be war crimes.

Fein says the unwillingness of the U.S. media to even mention the issue of the illegality of an attack on Iran are the result of a “psychology of empire,” which he says has “infected everything, including the media—organizations like the Times and the Post and CNN have bought into it.”

The Wall Street Journal (4/14/12) ran a long front-page article envisioning a U.S. attack that made no mention of legality. Even the Columbia Journalism Review has trouble with confronting this issue: When this article was proposed to editor Mike Hoyt at CJR, he turned down the idea, saying: “We batted this around, and think it is more a legal/political/moral idea than a journalistic one. It is hard to imagine the idea sustaining an article, at least for CJR.”

Repeated requests by phone and email for interviews with the foreign editors and ombudsmen at the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times and CBS News were all ignored.

But Sue Horton, opinion editor at the L.A. Times, who did answer her phone, says she had opted to run Ackerman’s article because “I think we’ve seen from past interventions that the more information the better. It’s important to keep the issue in the forefront, and Ackerman wrote a very cogent argument” against pre-emptive war.

Dave Lindorff is the founding editor of the online newspaper ThisCantBeHappening.net, and is the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of The Case for Impeachment (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). He can be reached at dlindorff@yahoo.com.