Intern Editorial: United States and Iran vs. Human Rights

The United States needs an inspired, well planned and coherent Middle East policy and needs desperately to avoid a reactionary approach to turbulence in the Middle East. Especially when it comes to Iran. In order to regain it’s diminished standing in global order the United States needs to develop and implement foreign and strategic policy’s which emphasize the United States role as a guardian of human rights and international humanitarian law. A simple return to the international norm of human rights and international humanitarian law can help the United States regain its footing in the Middle East and avoid knee-jerk reactions while undermining the ideological foundations of terrorism, hostile cyber actors, gray zone operators, and adversarial states.

In his essay “What is Political Philosophy” Leo Strauss points out that:

“All political action is aimed at either preservation or change. When desiring to preserve, we wish to prevent a change to the worse; when desiring to change we wish to bring about something better. All political action is, then, guided by some thought of better or worse. But thought of better or worse implies thought of the good…All political action has then in itself a directedness towards knowledge of the good: of the good life, or the good society.”

Strauss makes the argument that though two parties might disagree on what the “political good” is and therefore disagree on what the best course of political action is, both parties fundamentally agree on the conceptual or abstract existence of a political good, they just happen to disagree about the specifics of what political good actually is. This led Strauss to the argument that there is a “universal political good” regardless of what each individual might believe good and evil to be.

Although the United States and Iran might not currently agree on many things and have recently found each other at diplomatic and strategic odds there is still room to work.

By looking to multilateral institutions and international norms we see that it is not impossible to identify common ground between the two countries. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention are two examples of things which both countries might find to be on the “good” end of the spectrum of international politics.

Both the United States and Iran are party to the United Nations and signatories of the Geneva Convention.

Unfortunately Iran, among others, the most notable of which is Russia, has dealt a major blow to the international norms established by international humanitarian law which protect civilians from belligerent actors in conflict.

Perhaps worse, the United States has taken steps away from universally agreed upon international norms as well.

According to open sources, Iran and the United states have been sparring in cyber space since at least 2009.

Iran has prioritized its military objectives above the goals of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and above the goals of the Geneva Conventions. Iran has done so by involving non state actors in their cyber campaigns and by attempting to obfuscate attribution by either proxying attacks through civilian hackers or making it look as if state sponsored attacks were perpetrated by civilian attackers.

Iran’s strategy in cyberspace has been one which involves malicious attacks intended to do real damage to the computer systems they target regardless of whether or not they are military objectives or civilian’s objects.

For its part, the United States has been accused of perpetrating an attack using what has been called the “world’s first digital weapon” or “stuxnet” against Iranian nuclear facilities sometime prior to 2010.

The political motives in this attack might appear at a glance to be in support of a universal good: nuclear nonproliferation; but on closer inspection this is not so clear. Though the attack might have set Iran’s nuclear program back it also eroded another universal good: the principle of distinction between military objectives and civilian objects established by the Geneva Conventions.

Both states have exploited the international communities lack of concrete action to establish universal norms of behavior in the cyber domain.

Both states have engaged in a dangerous game of threshold exploitation which has had the effect of blurring an already fuzzy line between military objectives and civilian objects in cyberspace.

Actions by both states have worked to harden the norm that cyber warfare does not constitute “interstate conflict,” leaving cyberspace as a dangerous and lawless place.

In 2015, however, both states seemed to take a step forward toward their shared goals in the form of multilateral nuclear agreement in which Iran has agreed to stem its development of Nuclear weapons.

In an internationally unpopular maneuver the Trump Administration unilaterally pulled out of this deal taking another step on the political spectrum away from a universally agreed upon good.

The Trump administration has been un-forthcoming about what led to this decision and also un-forthcoming about happened next.

In response to an unspecified set of threats from Iran, the United States has imposed a devastating sanctions regime on Iran’s oil exports and has also deployed an aircraft carrier to the

Iran has in return issued multiple diplomatic warnings but they have also shot down a 200 million dollar American surveillance drone over what the United States says was international airspace.

Both Iran and Russia have perpetuated a different narrative claiming the drone was shot down in Iranian airspace. Unfortunately, the Russian, predominantly state controlled, media does not have the best reputation when it comes to telling the truth.

In turn the United States launched a cyber-attack against Iran as well as placed several high ranking officials including the Supreme Leader under financial sanctions which prevent them from traveling to the United States and prevent them from using certain elements of the international banking system.

This last round of sanctions has provoked an apparently intentionally belittling response from the Iranian Foreign Ministry in which Tehran has called President Trump either “mentally retarded” or “mentally handicapped” depending on the translation.

In turn, President Trump has responded with overt threats of military action emphasizing that Iran could be subject to ‘obliteration’.

Needless to say, the recent turn of events does not bring either country closer to international peace and has done nothing to rectify the damage they have both done to international norms established by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention.

The United States has been ignoring soft power politics to the detriment of its strategic posture and diplomatic ranking. If the United States turns hard and, not fast–but right now, towards human rights the rest of the world, including Iran, will have no choice but to follow.

Ben Shirani,

World Affairs Council Intern