Them’s Fightin’ Words? State Dept. Ramps Up Iran Rhetoric

Earlier today, the State Department announced that Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook will be delivering remarks tomorrow on the “malign activities” of the current Iranian government. According to the press release, he’ll deliver his speech in front of a display of “Iranian materiel” at Anacostia-Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. The press release notes that the display of Iranian materiel includes “clear and tangible evidence that the Iranian regime is arming dangerous groups with advanced weapons, and spreading instability and conflict in the region, which poses a threat to international peace and security.”

The subject of the speech is not surprising, of course, in light of the Trump administration’s very public and aggressive approach towards Iran, including its re-imposition of unilateral economic sanctions earlier this month. But the use of the phrase “threat to international peace and security” is quite deliberate and should be monitored carefully. Hook’s speech tomorrow follows on remarks he made at the Hudson Institute in September, when he characterized missiles, fired into Saudi Arabia by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, as a “threat to international peace and security.”

Why do these words matter? Under the United Nations Charter, the U.N. Security Council is charged with determining the existence of any threat to international peace and security, and it can decide to impose measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter (including economic sanctions and the use of military force) to “maintain or restore international peace and security.” The U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, were predicated on the Security Council’s finding that the proliferation risks presented by Iran’s nuclear program represented a threat to international peace and security. The words in the State Department’s press release today fall short of a statement that the Iranian regime itself poses a threat to international peace and security. However, they are part of a clear push by the United States to convince the international community that the “threat to international peace and security” posed by Iran goes well beyond Iran’s nuclear program and merits additional collective action.

These are the types of arguments that are made when trying to build support in the Security Council to address a threat. To date, the Trump administration has not built this support. These arguments are also made by states considering unilateral action under the theory and rhetorical (if not legal) justification that the Security Council has failed to address such a threat. So, should we assume that this rhetoric from the Trump administration is a precursor to additional unilateral action by the United States, perhaps even military action, to address what it perceives as an international threat from Iran? Not at this point – but these words do matter, and it is important to follow this rhetoric carefully.

Let’s see what Hook’s speech tomorrow includes.

Image: Brian Hook speaks to the media about Iran at the State Department on June 2, 2018. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Brian Egan

Partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington, D.C., former Legal Adviser to the State Department, former Legal Adviser to the National Security Council.