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Did the US Stay “Well Below the Threshold of War” With its June Cyberattack on Iran?

Published on September 2, 2019        Author: 

On 20 June 2019, the United States conducted a major cyberattack against Iran in response to Iran’s (alleged) attacks on oil tankers in the Hormuz Strait and the downing of an American surveillance drone. The attack was widely reported at the time, but on 28 August the New York Times published important new details, which included information about the legal-strategic thinking of the Americans. Specifically, it was reported that the US cybercampaign against Iran was “calibrated to stay well below the threshold of war”. Translated into legalese, this seems to imply that the Americans aim to keep their activities at a level that undoubtedly fall short of legal thresholds like article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which defines use of force, and common article 2 of the Geneva Conventions, which de facto triggers the laws of war. In this post, I discuss whether the Americans succeeded in keeping their distance from such thresholds.

The attack

In the original reporting on the attack by Yahoo! News, it was noted that the operation targeted “an Iranian spy group” with “ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps”, which supported attacks on commercial ships in the Hormuz Strait. The precise object of attack was not specified, but it was mentioned that the group had “over the past several years digitally tracked and targeted military and civilian ships passing through the economically important Strait of Hormuz”.

The New York Times’ report explains that the cyberattack successfully “wiped out a critical database used by Iran’s paramilitary arm to plot attacks against oil tankers and degraded Tehran’s ability to covertly target shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf, at least temporarily”. The Iranians, it is noted, are “still trying to recover information destroyed in the June 20 attack and restart some of the computer systems — including military communications networks — taken offline”. Accordingly, the attack seems to have crippled the targeted system in a way that has taken it offline and, presumably, rendered it useless for months. The effects of the attack were “designed to be temporary”, officials said, but had “lasted longer than expected”. In terms of the specific target of the attack, it was reported that the target was the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence group. Read the rest of this entry…

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Tanker Games – The Law Behind the Action

Published on August 20, 2019        Author: 

The conflict between some western States and Iran has reached a new phase. Last month, both sides arrested tankers off their coasts. Whereas the political intentions of either side are evident, difficult questions come up with regard to the legal assessment of these actions. They concern the extraterritorial application of a sanction regime, the law of the sea and countermeasures. The post will describe the facts related to the detention of a tanker off Gibraltar (1). It will be investigated if the regime of the transit passage (2) or of innocent passage (3) is applicable under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Thereafter, the post will study which State may rely on the respective rights (4). The post then will turn to the facts of the second case which happened in the strait of Hormuz (5). It will shortly mention Iran’s right to take measures for the safety of navigation beyond its territorial waters (6), and the regime of countermeasures (7). In part (8) the compatibility of military patrols by western States in the strait of Hormuz with the law of the sea will be studied.

The Facts related to the case off the coast of Gibraltar

On July 4, 2019 the British navy detained the tanker Grace 1, allegedly in the territorial waters of Gibraltar. The vessel was passing through the strait of Gibraltar after having circumnavigated Africa. The chief minister of Gibraltar declared in a press release that the vessel was seized in order to enforce EU sanctions against Syria. The decision was based on the EU regulation 36/2012, a law of Gibraltar of 29 March 2019 and a regulation of Gibraltar of 3 July 2019. According to art. 14 para. 2 of the EU regulation it is prohibited to make available economic resources to corporations listed in Annex 2 to the regulation which includes the Banyas Oil Refinery Company. The chief minister of Gibraltar alleged that the oil carried by the tanker came from Iran and was destined to the refinery; this is denied by Iran.

The EU regulation and the above-mentioned legislation of Gibraltar is applicable on the territory of Gibraltar and the territorial waters. Gibraltar claims territorial waters up to 3 nm.

Grace 1 is owned by a shipping company located in Singapore and flew the flag of Panamá. However, according to the Autoridad Marítima de Panamá the vessel was removed from the open registry of Panamá on 29 May 2019.

Transit Passage

It is generally recognized that this strait falls under art. Read the rest of this entry…

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A Reply to Professor Kraska on the Iranian Shootdown of the US Global Hawk Drone

Published on July 17, 2019        Author: 

Prof. Kraska has argued in his latest EJIL: Talk! article that the incident regarding the downing of a US drone by Iran happened due to the scarce knowledge of international law by an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander. While I do appreciate Prof. Kraska’s discretion in referring to US intelligence sources, on the other hand the US President himself openly provided to the media the same assessment.

I will now concentrate on some points raised by Prof. Kraska:

  1. The US counterattack was cancelled.

This observation implies by default and without any specifics that the action conducted by Iran was in fact an attack confirming the US policy on the equivalence of  use of force with armed attack. One might disagree and follow the difference between the two as expressed by the ICJ in the Nicaragua case (para. 191). It is also difficult to understand this point of view, as the author did not state from the beginning that he was taking the US declarations on the position of the drone as a given fact. Even so, Iran’s declarations to the UN Security Council (UNSC) would have been worth mentioning to the reader for awareness purposes. In his letter, the Iranian Ambassador defines the US violation of his Country’s airspace as a “hostile act” to which Iran responded in self-defense. This is a shift on the interpretation of self-defense by Iran that actually aligns with the US view (use of force = self-defense). For more insights on the topic see here. Read the rest of this entry…

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Filed under: Iran, Use of Force
 

Misunderstanding of International Aviation Law May be Behind Iran’s Shootdown of the U.S. Global Hawk Drone

Published on July 1, 2019        Author: 

On Thursday, June 20, the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) shot down an unarmed U.S. surveillance drone, nearly igniting open conflict between the United States and Iran. The $180 million U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk was struck by an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGCN) surface-to-air missile launched from near Goruk, Iran. With strained relations over new U.S. sanctions against the regime and coming after weeks of drama over evidence suggesting Iran was emplacing limpet mines on commercial oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, the incident caused President Trump to order – and then to abruptly cancel – strikes against Iranian military facilities. After first promising quick retaliation, President Trump took a step back, stating, “ have a feeling — I may be wrong and I may be right, but I’m right a lot — I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody that shouldn’t have been doing what they did.”

Apparently, the decision to cancel the counterattack was made because U.S. intelligence assessed that the shootdown was made by a local IRGCN commander and was not sanctioned by the regime in Tehran. Intelligence reports suggest that the Iranian regime was “furious” with the wayward commander’s decision to attack the drone, and the U.S. President deescalated the situation.

The U.S. has suffered decades of Iranian violations of the freedom to transit through and above the oceans near Iran. The IRGCN appears as a matter of policy to selectively harass foreign commercial and naval ships conducting lawful transit in the Strait of Hormuz, and in 2016 it unlawfully detained two U.S. small boats and their crews, which were exercising innocent passage in Iranian territorial seas. Yet the recent shootdown of the U.S. drone likely arose from a lack of understanding of international aviation law and Iran’s rights and responsibilities as a party to the 1944 Convention on Civil Aviation (the Chicago Convention) and the rules promulgated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Read the rest of this entry…

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Attribution of Naval Mine Strikes in International Law

Published on June 24, 2019        Author:  and

On Thursday, June 13, two ships were damaged within forty-five minutes by (current evidence suggests) limpet mines, while transiting the Gulf of Oman at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. The Japanese product tanker, Kokuka Courageous sustained damage from either a limpet mine or a projectile, just as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran to try to reduce regional tensions. The Front Altair, also a tanker, suffered far more severe damage to its starboard hull, including a hole at the waterline, which – it has been suggested – was the result of a torpedo strike. This is very difficult to confirm – torpedoes tend to cause much more significant damage, and the damage sustained by Front Altair might also be consistent with a moored or floating mine strike, or the detonation of an attached limpet mine. Both ships caught fire and their crews abandoned ship. Four ships were also damaged by limpet mines off the coast of Fujairah on May 12, 2019. A UAE inquiry pinned responsibility on an ‘unidentified state actor.’

World oil prices increased as daily freight rates for oil supertankers climbed as much as fifty percent to reflect the heightened risk. Insurance rates for a seven-day transit have increased fifteen percent. Some seventy of the world’s supertankers are in the region – ten percent of global capacity – but many remain idle due to the threat. The United States blamed Iran for the attacks, and indeed there is evidence that points to Iranian involvement. The UK also attributes responsibility to Iran. Iran has denied responsibility, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded on twitter that the United States or its allies were likely behind the assaults and that the charge was ‘[without] a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence.’

The United States has pledged to keep the Strait of Hormuz (SOH) open to traffic. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attributed the attacks to Iran based upon ‘intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.’ On June 17 he doubled down, promising to present in the coming days ‘lots of data, lots of evidence’ linking the attacks to Iran. President Trump stated flatly, ‘Iran did do it.’ U.S. Central Command released a video which appears to show an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp Navy (IRGCN) patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from the Kokuka Courageous. Trump added, ‘I guess one of the mines didn’t explode and it’s probably got essentially Iran written all over it… It was them that did it.’

In this piece, we explore the available evidence for attribution in light of the international law on point. May the attacks be attributed to Iran, and if not, what additional evidence would have to be produced? And once (if) attribution of the attacks is made out, what measures may affected states then take in response? Since there is no evidence that there exists an international armed conflict under Common Article 2 of the Geneva Conventions, we do not address international humanitarian law, although in the last few days the shoot down of a US UAV and reports of a bombing mission switch off are starting to complicate this assessment.

Read the rest of this entry…

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President Trump admits US strike against Iran would have been illegal

Published on June 21, 2019        Author: 

Yesterday President Trump apparently aborted a US strike against Iran, in response to Iran’s destruction of an unmanned US surveillance drone. US and Iranian accounts continue to differ on whether the drone was shot down in Iranian airspace or in international airspace. Ashley Deeks and Scott Anderson have helpfully analyzed the international legal framework applicable to any US strike in response to the destruction of the drone over on Lawfare, to which I have little to add in principle. In particular, they’ve explained the more expansive and the more restrictive theories of self-defence on which the legality of a US strike would hinge (see also Ashley’s previous post here).

But, President Trump has tweeted in the past hour, as he does, and his tweets effectively (if inadvertently) admit the illegality of the aborted US strike under any conceivable theory of self-defence, no matter how expansive:

 

Note, first, how President Trump describes the aborted US strike as being meant ‘to retaliate’ against Iran for the destruction of the drone. But it is black letter jus ad bellum that the purpose of self-defence can only be to stop an ongoing attack, or (possibly) to prevent imminent future attacks. It cannot, however, simply be to retaliate against an attack committed in the past. Thus, even if US historically expansive views on the right to self-defence were to be accepted in their totality, and even we were to accept that the US drone was in international airspace when it was shot down and that this was an armed attack by Iran against the US in the sense of Article 51 of the UN Charter, the US head of state has just admitted to the world that the strike he authorized, and then rescinded, was retaliatory and not defensive in nature.

Similarly, he expressly admitted that the attack would have been disproportionate, as 150 lives would likely have been lost for one destroyed unmanned drone. And as we all know, proportionality is a key requirement of the customary law of self-defence. Thankfully, President Trump ultimately decided to abort the strikes, and therefore no violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter took place. Hopefully any conflict between the US and Iran will be avoided. But that said, it is also clear from what the US President tweeted to all of us, so explicitly and so ungrammatically, that the proposed military action of his government, had it taken place, would have been illegal. And again, under the President’s own admission, it would have been illegal regardless of whether one embraces a more restrictive or a more expansive theory of self-defence.

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Justifying Self-defense against Assisting States: Conceptualizing Legal Consequences of Inter-State Assistance

Published on May 23, 2019        Author:  and

Cause for thought: Israel’s airstrikes directed against Iran and Syria

Israel has acknowledged to have repeatedly struck Iranian military targets in Syria. While confrontations occur frequently, the incident of January 21, 2019 has received  particular attention. Israeli guided missiles, apparently fired over Lebanese territory (UN Doc. S/PV.8449, p. 31f), hit Iranian military targets in Syria, also leading to personal and material damage of Syria. Israel invoked its right to self-defense, apparently reacting to Iran firing a surface-to-surface missile towards the Golan Heights on Sunday, January 20 from Syrian territory. Syria’s precise role in the Iranian action beyond this territorial link remains murky.

The problem: self-defense affecting assisting states

The Israeli claim to self-defense faces various legal questions (e.g. whether the attack meets the necessary threshold or whether annexed territories can be defended). This contribution does not aim to assess the Israeli claim, but shall use this example to shed light on one problem only: May the victim of an armed attack defend itself not only against the attacker state, but also against an “assisting” state?

Even if the use of force by the defending state (here Israel) against the attacking state (here Iran) is assumed to be justified by self-defense, it also forcefully infringes upon the territorial integrity of the assisting State (here Syria), as protected under Article 2(4) UNC, and warrants justification, too. The claim that strikes directed against an actor within the territory of another state are not a prohibited use of force against the territorial state has been repeatedly rebutted.

In fact, in the Security Council debate on the January incident, Syria labelled the Israeli strikes as “acts of aggression targeting the Syrian Arab Republic”, a “gross violation of international law” (S/PV.8449, p. 31f). Iran like Russia condemned the Israeli action, emphasizing the infringement of Syria’s sovereignty. Interestingly, Israel (unlike the USA or Germany) showed awareness of the problem by holding “the Syrian regime responsible for the missile that was launched against Israel from Syrian territory” (S/PV.8449, p. 8). The IDF added that “Syria paid the price for allowing Iran to conduct attacks from its soil.”

While the permissibility of self-defense against states supporting non-state actor violence is being extensively discussed, self-defense against states assisting another state has received little attention Read the rest of this entry…

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Non-Precluded Measures Clause: Substance or Procedure? A comment on Certain Iranian Assets

Published on March 6, 2019        Author: 

On 13 February 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued its Judgment on the preliminary objections raised by the US to Iran’s claims in the Certain Iranian Assets case. The dispute involves the exercise of jurisdiction over Iran by US courts and the seizure of assets of Iranian state-owned companies to satisfy those court’s judgments. According to Iran, these actions are in breach of the US obligations under the 1955 Iran-US Treaty of Amity. The background to the case and the Court’s recent decision have been analysed elsewhere (see, eg, here). In this post, I want to comment on one specific element of the Court’s reasoning: its decision in relation to the US objection based on Article XX(1) of the Treaty of Amity.

Article XX(1) states, in relevant part, that:

The present treaty shall not preclude the application of measures …

(c) regulating the production of or traffic in arms, ammunition and implements of war, or traffic in other materials carried on directly or indirectly for the purpose of supplying a military establishment; and

(d) necessary to fulfil the obligations of a High Contracting Party for the maintenance or restoration of international peace and security, or necessary to protect its essential security interests.

The US argued that the function of this provision was to exclude certain matters from the substantive scope of the Treaty, with the consequence that they fell outside the Court’s jurisdiction which is limited, under Article XXI, to disputes relating to the interpretation and application of the Treaty. The Court rejected the US preliminary objection and decided, as it had done on previous occasions, that the provision in question constituted a ‘defence on the merits’ (para 47). This seems to be the right approach: Read the rest of this entry…

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The ICJ’s Provisional Measures Order in Alleged Violations of the 1955 Treaty (Iran v United States)

Published on October 3, 2018        Author: 

The ICJ this morning issued its Order regarding Iran’s request for the indication of provisional measures in Alleged Violations of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights (Iran v United States). This post is intended as a brief summary of the reasoning of the Court. After a short introduction, I will outline the Court’s approach to the three core elements required for an indication of provisional measures: prima facie jurisdiction, plausibility of rights and nexus with provisional measures requested, and risk of irreparable prejudice and urgency.

The facts of the case, including the hearings on the request for provisional measures, are covered in an earlier post. In brief, Iran claims that the re-introduction by the United States of sanctions against it following the latter’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 violates the 1955 Treaty of Amity between the two States. In its request for the indication of provisional measures, Iran sought the Court’s order that the US shall, inter alia, suspend its reintroduction of the sanctions, as well as allow transactions already licensed to be implemented.

In its Order of this morning, Iran, in part, prevailed, with the Court indicating some of the provisional measures requested by Iran. Thus, the Court required that the US ‘remove, by means of its choosing, any impediments arising from the measures announced on 8 May 2018 to the free exportation to the territory of the Islamic Republic of Iran of (i) medicines and medical devices; (ii) foodstuffs and agricultural commodities; and (iii) spare parts, equipment and associated services (including warranty, maintenance, repair services and inspections) necessary for the safety of civil aviation’. The Court also ordered that the US must ‘ensure that licenses and necessary authorizations are granted and that payments and other transfers of funds are not subject to any restriction’ where they relate to the goods and services noted above, and that both parties ‘refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve.’

It is interesting to note that the provisional measures in this case were adopted by the Court unanimously, and thus with the support of the US Judge ad hoc Charles Brower. This is, by no means, the first time a US judge has supported a Court ruling against the US, but it is nevertheless interesting (particularly from a judge ad hoc). Judge Thomas Buergenthal supported judgments of the Court against the US in a number of previous cases, including the Oil Platforms merits judgment (after Judge Schwebel had dissented from the Court’s 1996 finding of jurisdiction in that same case).

Read the rest of this entry…

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The Iranian Suit against the US Sanctions and the 1955 Treaty of Amity: Brilliant Plan or Aberration?

Published on September 7, 2018        Author: 

The Iranian economy is already feeling the effects of the United States economic sanctions that are successively being reinstated following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on 8 May 2018. In an attempt to save what can be saved, Iran seized the International Court of Justice in July requesting the latter to order and declare that the 8 May and subsequent sanctions are unlawful; that the United States shall stop its threats with respect to the further announced sanctions and that it shall compensate Iran. The claim is accompanied by a request for provisional measures by which Iran seeks to obtain, in particular, the immediate suspension of the sanctions and the non-implementation of the sanctions announced. Last week, both parties met in court for the hearings on the provisional measures request.

Iran has not claimed a violation of the JCPOA but alleges breaches of the Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights signed by Iran and the United States in 1955. The reason is simple: neither Iran nor the United States accepts the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ, both states having withdrawn their optional clause declarations. A compromis not being in sight, Iran can only ground the ICJ’s jurisdiction on a compromissory clause. While the JCPOA does not contain such a clause, the Treaty of Amity stipulates in its Article XXI (2) that “[a]ny dispute between the High Contracting Parties as to the interpretation or application of the present Treaty, not satisfactorily adjusted by diplomacy, shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice, unless the High Contracting Parties agree to settlement by some other pacific means.”

The case, and the provisional measures request, raises many interesting questions, including  for example, whether the mainly economic damages alleged by Iran are irreparable as is required for the indication of such measures, and whether the request could possibly pre-empt the decision on the merits. However, this post is uniquely concerned with whether the idea to rely on the Treaty of Amity helps overcome the hurdle of jurisdiction. While the existence of jurisdiction need only be proved prima facie in the provisional measures phase, the Court will at a later stage have to take a definite decision (assuming the case is not dismissed for manifest lack of jurisdiction at the provisional measures stage). One of the most problematic issues is whether the dispute is about the interpretation or application of the Treaty of Amity despite the existence of the JCPOA. If this is the case, invoking the Treaty of Amity was a smart move by Iran.

The Iranian idea can potentially be attacked in two places: the actual scope of the application and the request, as well as the potential inapplicability of the Treaty of Amity. Read the rest of this entry…

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