An Attack on Iran Would Be Illegal. What Does the UK Media Say?
The ‘option’ of a military attack on Iran by Israel, the UK and the US has been increasingly discussed in the UK media since 2011.
Government threats of military action have come in various forms, with Israel warning of potential air strikes against Iran in the next few months, and Obama and Cameron stating that ‘no options are off the table’.
This is combined with what could at best be described as ambiguous reporting on Iran’s nuclear programme, at times baselessly claiming that Iran has nuclear weapons, and, at others, relying on repetition of snippets like ‘the US and its allies believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons – a charge Iran denies.’
In the media, one fact is not (yet) up for debate (despite the attempts of the Telegraph’s Dan Hodges [below]): that any invasion of Iran would be a violation of international law – even if Iran was in the process of developing nuclear weapons. The United Nations Charter also outlaws the ‘threat of the use of force’, an act in which much of the media, in its uncritical stance towards government threats, has made itself complicit.
The solution to these awkward details, it seems, is to ignore them almost completely. Failure to reinforce the illegality of such an act of war has resulted in much coverage discussing the ‘inevitability’ of a war on Iran.
This study looks at the news, blogs and comment articles about Iran since October 2011 – around the time that aggressive official rhetoric towards Iran upped a notch – and seeks to answer a simple question:
How often do the British media inform us that a military attack on Iran would be illegal?
Four online news providers were studied – BBC News, The Guardian, The Independent, and The Telegraph*. In total, there were 4 mentions of the fact that an invasion would be illegal. The results, in summary, are as follows:
One mention of the illegality of an invasion of Iran is made on the BBC news website. In an analysis article, ‘How would Iran respond to an Israeli attack?’ (7 March 2012), Jonathan Marcus states:
For all the uncertainties as to whether Israel would attack Iran and indeed how Iran might respond, one thing is clear – in terms of international law, such a strike would be illegal.
This article was a balance to a previous analysis article that Marcus wrote, entitled ‘How Israel might strike at Iran’ (27 February 2012). Preoccupied with presenting the reader with dotted bomber flight path lines from Israel to Iran and military hardware specification sheets, this report failed to raise the issue of legality.
In contrast, the BBC News website has run 9 articles which have relayed politician’s musings (Hague, Clegg, Hammond and US officials) which insinuated violation of international law on the part of Iran.
The ‘News’ section of The Guardian did not make any mention of the illegality of an attack on Iran. The ‘Comment is Free’ section ran three articles which correctly pointed out that an invasion would violate international law.
Abbas Edalat wrote on 1 December 2011:
But Iran itself has been targeted for many years by a series of western and UK policies that are gross violations of international law. Repeatedly threatening Iran with a military attack, thinly disguised under the phrase “all options are on the table” and publicly announcing that the west must use covert operations to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme (as John Sawers, the head of MI6, demanded two years ago), are only two examples of the UK’s disrespect for the UN charter.
On 21 February 2012, Seumas Milne wrote, in an article entitled ‘An attack on Iran would be an act of criminal stupidity’:
If an attack is launched by Israel or the US, it would not just be an act of criminal aggression, but of wanton destructive stupidity. As Michael Clarke, director of the British defence establishment’s Royal United Services Institute, points out, such an attack would be entirely illegal: “There is no basis in international law for preventative, rather than pre-emptive, war.”
On 12 March 2012 in a Q&A piece, Saeed Kamali Denghan responds to a question about the threat from Iran as follows:
Well, bombing Iran is illegal under international law in the first place. Little has been said about the legality of the issue, so one might mistake it as to be justified, where as it is not.
In contrast, The Guardian website has run 14 articles which have insinuated violation of international law on the part of Iran.
No mention of the illegality of an attack on Iran was found in The Independent for this time period.
In contrast, The Independent website has run 6 articles which have insinuated violation of international law on the part of Iran.
No mention of the illegality of an attack on Iran was found in The Telegraph for this time period.
In contrast, The Telegraph website has run 2 articles which insinuated violation of international law on the part of Iran. In addition, Dan Hodges argues in his Telegraph Blog that under international law there ‘probably is a case for’ an attack on Iran:
There is then the question of pre-emptive action. Again, Prof Blix is a Juris Doctor in International Law, and I have two A-levels and a grade 2 CSE in French. But I would hazard a guess that under international law there probably is a case for taking some form of pre-emptive action against an aggressor who expresses a public desire to wipe you off the map. Sorry, there’s that unfortunate phrase again. It just keeps popping up, doesn’t it?
Apart from a few admirable exceptions, the media takes little interest in informing us that threats of war, and war itself, are illegal. This fact is only found once in a BBC analysis article, and three times in the Guardian’s Comment section. Government claims that Iran has either acted or is threatening to act outside of international law are, however, free to flourish and propagate their way through the mainstream.
Suggestions that attack on Iran would violate international law: 4
Suggestions that Iran has, could have, or might violate international law: 31
How the dataset was created:
BBC News – search results for the term ‘Iran’ from 1 Oct 2011 (534 articles)
The Guardian – articles in the ‘Iran’ category from 1 Oct 2011 (500 articles)
The Independent – search results for the term ‘Iran’ from 1 Oct 2011 (584 articles)
The Telegraph – search results for the term ‘Iran’ from 1 Oct 2011, as well as all articles from ‘Iran’ category page.
* The Telegraph website’s search engine did not pick up all articles containing the word, and the category page dated back to 9th Feb, resulting in a somewhat limited dataset (261 articles).