Contempt for International Law: NYTimes and WashPost on Iran

Although the editors of the New York Times and Washington Post routinely accuse the Iranian government of “contempt for international law” (NYT, 12/30/11), their own record reveals a systematic disdain for the international legal principles and treaty obligations of which the US and Israeli governments are in violation.
The editorial boards not only fail to subject US and Israeli actions to legal scrutiny, they also directly promote the violation of international law: through their advocacy of the use of military threats, collective punishment, and selective assassinations and bombings; through the implication that unprovoked US military invasion in Iran would be justified if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon; and through their neglect of US and Israeli obligations regarding nuclear disarmament. The editors at the Times and Post have stopped short of advocating immediate US military intervention in Iran, in fact arguing against such an option. But the Obama approach of continuous threats, “crippling sanctions,” and tacit support for Israeli terror—all explicitly or implicitly endorsed by the papers’ editors—is likewise illegal under multiple provisions of international and US national law.
The specific provisions are not obscure. The Nuremberg Tribunal that prosecuted the Nazis after World War II declared non-defensive military intervention to be “the supreme international crime.” The threat of force is also forbidden, meaning that President Obama’s frequent statement that “all options are on the table” is criminal. The central document of international law, the United Nations Charter adopted in 1945, unequivocally prohibits “the threat or use of force” in international relations unless a nation is attacked or unless the UN Security Council authorizes the use of force. UN Security Council Resolution 1887 of September 2009 has reaffirmed this prohibition. These principles are also part of United States law, both under Article 6 of the Constitution (stipulating that treaties to which the United States is a signatory become “the supreme Law of the Land”) and under the US Code of Federal Regulations, which defines “international terrorism” as actions  that “appear to be intended to i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population, ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, [and/or] iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” Such a definition arguably prohibits the “coercion” of the Iranian government via economic sanctions, as well. The legality of economic sanctions is also challenged by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the collective punishment of civilian populations.
Media references to Iranian leaders’ “contempt for international law” have some basis in truth, but their emphasis is misplaced. The Iranian regime has been in violation of UN Security Council resolutions demanding that it cease uranium enrichment altogether, and it may be in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (if it is pursuing nuclear weapons) [1]. But the Iranian government’s military intentions are widely recognized by experts, including US officials, to be focused on the development of deterrents to outside military attack rather than the development of offensive capabilities [2]. While Iran has not attacked another country in over two centuries, the US and Israeli governments both have long records of non-defensive military intervention in the region. Arab public opinion also overwhelmingly supports Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful uses and views the United States and Israel as far greater threats to regional peace. The contempt for international law shown by the US and Israeli governments and prominent intellectuals like the Times and Post editors thus appears to be far more dangerous and worrisome at the present time.
During the past two years the Times featured eighteen editorials of which a central focus was Iran’s nuclear program. The Post featured twenty-two such editorials. The table below summarizes the record.


New York Times and Washington Post Editorials on Iran’s Nuclear Program,
March 16, 2010, through March 15, 2012

  New York Times
(18 total)
Washington Post
(22 total)
Considered International Law Implications of US/Israeli Actions and Threats 0 0
Considered Effects of Sanctions on Iranian People 1 2
Considered Iranian Civilians’ Views on Sanctions 0 0
Recognized Iran’s Right to Pursue Civilian Nuclear Program 1 0
Mentioned Israel's Nuclear Weapons 0 0
Supported US/UN Sanctions 17 17
Said or Implied That Iran Is Seeking Nuclear Weapons 17 17

Editorials in both papers go beyond simply ignoring the law, in fact frequently applauding President Obama’s statements that “all options are on the table,” which, as noted, violate international and US national law. Sometimes the editorial boards, particularly at the Post, have criticized the Obama administration for not being aggressive enough with its threats. A representative editorial (4/20/12) praised the “all-options-on-the-table” stance but complained that “senior officials regularly talk down the military option in public—thereby undermining its utility as an instrument of intimidation.” Both papers have also seemed to endorse Israeli terrorist tactics of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. A recent Times editorial (1/13/12) argued that the “accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyberattacks and defections—carried out mainly by Israel, according to The Times—is slowing the program, but whether that is enough is unclear.” It is worth pondering what the editors’ response would be if the Iranian government were assassinating US or Israeli scientists for their role in developing their own countries’ nuclear arsenals, or if there would even be an “Iran” left to speak of following the furious Western bombing campaign that would likely ensue.

The vast majority of the editorials surveyed included statements in support of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States, the UN Security Council, the European Union, and a number of other countries. Both papers, but the Post more explicitly, have endorsed the strategy of increasing civilian suffering as a way of undermining the Iranian government’s legitimacy. The Post has been a forceful advocate of harsher sanctions for this reason, arguing in 2010 that “the administration has so far shrunk from supporting sanctions, such as a gasoline embargo, that might heighten popular anger against the regime” (4/20/10). Last July the Post editors reported with satisfaction that Iran “is having difficulty arranging imports, including food,” as a result of the sanctions, but offered no reflection on the possible legal or moral implications of such a strategy (7/22/11).
This pattern adheres to past precedent. In their landmark 2004 critique of how the New York Times covers US foreign policy, Howard Friel and Richard Falk found that the Times completely ignored law-based objections to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq: “no space was accorded to the broad array of international law and world-order arguments opposing the war,” and “the only references to US-based international law opinion in the Times news pages were to a few unrepresentative specialists, with close past and present ties to the government, who supported the war.” Conversely, observed Friel and Falk, “Editorials and columnists display no reluctance to invoke international law in support of their condemnation of [hostile acts] by enemies of the United States.” 
Like international law, Iranian civilians are virtually absent from Times and Post editorials unless reference to them supports the US-Israeli agenda. In light of the devastating impact that UN sanctions had on Iraqi civilians from 1990 to 2003—hundreds of thousands killed by a policy deemed “genocidal” by UN official Denis Halliday, and “worth it” by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—one might expect respectable news outlets to consider the possible impact of foreign sanctions on the Iranian population. But 37 of the 40 editorials surveyed gave no explicit acknowledgment of the possibility of civilian suffering, and one of the three that did complained that the sanctions were not inflicting enough suffering on civilians (WP, 4/20/10).
Also absent are the voices of Iranian civilians who oppose Western sanctions. These voices include “Green Movement” opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has consistently spoken out against sanctions for their negative impact on the Iranian population and because they will do little to weaken the government’s hold on the country. The voices also include the courageous Raha Iranian Feminist Collective, which bitterly condemns both the Iranian regime and “all forms of US intervention,” including so-called “targeted” sanctions. In a recent statement the group said that sanctions “further immiserate the very people they claim to be helping,” and noted that

No member of any Iran-based opposition group—from leaders of the “green” movement, to activists in the women’s and student movement, to labor organizers—have called for or supported the US/UN/EU sanctions against the Islamic Republic. On the contrary, leaders from virtually all of these groups have vocally opposed the implementation of sanctions precisely because they have witnessed the Iranian state grow stronger, and the wellbeing of ordinary Iranians suffer, as a result. 

This crucial fact was omitted from all of the editorials surveyed, none of which even bothered to consider the position of the Iranian population on sanctions. In fact, the entire New York Times print edition has never mentioned Mousavi’s opposition to sanctions; the Post has done so once, in 2009. In one particularly ironic editorial (12/29/09), subtitled “What Should the United States Do to Help the Green Movement?,” the Post explicitly advocated more severe sanctions against Iran. No major world publication has reported the Raha Collective’s statement.
The invisibility of Iranian civilians in discussions of sanctions contrasts sharply with US papers’ effusive sympathy for civilian suffering when inflicted by the Iranian regime itself. Iranian civilians have a remarkable superpower, evident in their tendency to appear and disappear almost instantaneously in accordance with the needs of US policymakers. Control over that power is of course out of their hands, however.

[This post is a shortened version of the original. The full-length article with citations is available here.]
[1] As a “non-nuclear-state” signatory to the NPT Iran is prohibited from seeking nuclear weapons. However,an overlooked provision of the NPT means that the Iranian government may not be in violation of the treaty even if it is seeking nuclear weapons. As international law expert Richard Falk notes, Article X of the NPT “allows a party to withdraw from the obligations under the treaty if it gives three months’ notice and ‘decides that extraordinary events…have jeopardized its supreme national interests’…Such a provision, in effect, acknowledges the legal right of a country to determine its own security requirements in relation to nuclear weapons.” In Iran’s case, it is certainly plausible to argue that foreign threats justify abandonment of the non-proliferation pledge in the name of “security requirements.” See Falk, “Stop Warmongering in the Middle East” (blog post), January 20, 2012.
[2] See, for example, the testimony by Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, who says that “Iran’s military strategy is designed to defend against external threats, particularly from the United States and Israel” (Statement before the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, April 14, 2010). See also Noam Chomsky, “The Iranian Threat,” ZNet, June 28, 2010; Noam Chomsky, “What Are Iran’s Intentions?” In These Times (online version), March 2, 2012.



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