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January 7, 2020

The supremacy of power


January 7, 2020

The targeted death of a top Iranian commander in a US airstrike in Baghdad has the potential to throw into a tailspin an already volatile region. At the same time, the legality of the attack, which was carried out in a third country – Iraq – without its approval, has been put under question. Washington claims that the strike was perpetrated in self-defence to pre-empt ‘future Iranian attack plans’ including ‘imminent and sinister’ targeting of American diplomats and troops under the command of the slain Major-General Qassem Soleimani.

It’s not for the first time that the US has invoked the doctrine of pre-emption to justify an evident breach of international law. In the contemporary era, the doctrine was invoked by President George Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The doctrine was articulated by Bush as “Defending the United States, the American people, and our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders. While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone… by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.” On another occasion he stated: “If we wait for threats to fully materialize we will have waited too long.”

The ensuing National Security Strategy of the Bush administration clearly stated the doctrine of pre-emption in these words: “It has taken almost a decade for us to comprehend the true nature of this new threat. Given the goals of the rogue states and terrorists, the US can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we had in the past. The ability to deter a potential attacker... and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapon do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first.”

Thus, the doctrine of pre-emption supplied a moral-cum-legal justification to the US to extirpate perceived threats to its security or that of its nationals in another country. As per the doctrine, some nations, such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, and North Korea, were branded as ‘rogue states’ or part of the ‘axis of evil’. It was by invoking the doctrine of pre-emption that Bush ordered the 2002 attack on Iraq – which set off what’s known as the Second Gulf War and pulled down the Saddam regime – on the suspicion that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction, which might plausibly be used against the US.

The United Nations Charter in principle prohibits the use of force in inter-state relations. However, the Charter contains two exceptions to the rule. One, force may be used against a state to maintain international peace and security – provided such an action is mandated by the Security Council. Two, states have the right to individual and collective self-defence. However, this right can be exercised only in the event of an attack on a state’s territorial integrity and not on the basis of the suspicion that such an attack may take place.

The doctrine of pre-emption and its application raise a perennial question in international relations: how to prevent a powerful state from trampling the sovereignty of weaker nations? One perennial answer to this question consists in the politics of balance of power and alliances, whereby weaker states combine to thwart the ambitions of a potentially powerful adversary. Seeking the protection of a powerful state against another potent nation has been another way to safeguard national sovereignty.

Collective security, as envisaged in the UN Charter, whereby the international ‘community’ is bound to come to the rescue of a member in the event of a breach of its sovereignty is the 20th century recipe for reining in a belligerent state. This view is based on the liberal assumption that the struggle for power can be tamed by international law; and that the pursuit of self-interest can be replaced by the shared objective of promoting security for all. The fact that state sovereignty continues to be violated in one form or another testifies that none of these solutions undergirds an iron-clad guarantee to a nation’s security.

The inadequacies of such solutions may be set down to the essential characteristic of the international political order – anarchy. In the absence of an international government, which will immediately take cognizance of a breach of international law and move to restore treaty obligations, every state in the end is left to fend for itself. In case a powerful state’s perceived national interest dictates violation of the territorial integrity of another, no values or norms will come in the way.

Power is the key to social dynamics, not least in international relations. Regardless of their official ideologies – liberalism, fascism, communism – all states are actuated by the impulse to enhance their power and impose their will on others. Nineteenth century England was a liberal democracy; yet it colonized a large part of humanity. In the 20th century, a liberal US and a communist USSR vied to dominate the world and shape it in their respective images. Domination is always an act of power.

Notwithstanding all diplomatic niceties and protestations of sovereign equality of states and rule of law, the only effective antidote to power is power. Every nation knows well this fact; though it may pretend to transcend it. The doctrine of pre-emption is the ultimate affirmation of faith in the supremacy of power.

Coming back to the recent Iran-US stand-off, Tehran has vowed to fight fire with fire. Yet, it has a limited number of options available. In case it chooses to attack American interests in the Middle East, let’s make no mistake about it, Washington will give it an overwhelming riposte. Americans may be Satanic in the eye of Tehran but they are also the world’s sole superpower. In case Iran chooses to target US allies in the region, it will further be isolated.

It may close the Strait of Hormuz, a key conduit for oil trade, which it has threatened to do so on several occasions in the past. But such a move would draw a tough response from the countries which depend on this route for import or export of oil. That said, the Iranian leadership isn’t expected to take the incident in question on their chin, for doing so would run counter to the fundamental narrative in which their people have been schooled. It remains to be seen whether they will bite more than they can chew.

The economy, which is up the creek, is the foremost constraint on Tehran. Having grown at a remarkable pace of 12.5 percent in 2016 in the wake of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the nuclear deal, the economy sputtered to 3.7 percent in 2017, as the excess capacity ran out. In 2018 and 2019, the economy registered negative growth of 4.8 percent and 9.5 percent respectively (IMF data), as the US opted out of the JCPOA in May 2018 and re-imposed its sanctions on the country. As in case of other Gulf States, oil is the most precious commodity for Iran and the petroleum sector is the mainstay of the economy. The oil export revenue bankrolls the country’s ambitious foreign policy.

Iran’s average crude oil output scaled up from 3.49 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2015 to 4.37 million bpd in 2016 and further to 4.70 million bpd in 2017. In 2018, however, the oil production slightly came down to 4.47 million bpd. In the first ten months of 2019, the oil output came down drastically to 2.14 million bpd, as the waiver granted by Washington to eight major importers of Iranian oil expired in May 2019. Iran’s crude oil exports rose from $19.2 billion in 2015 to $48.3 billion in 2017 before falling to $45.6 billion in 2018.

When an economy contracts, jobs are shed by the bucketful, the standard of living comes down precipitously, government subsidies have to be scaled down and inflationary pressures mount. As a result, social discontent balloons up. Iran has faced this situation in recent months, as suffocated by the economic squeeze, people set on fire banks and other public assets. Grappling with these internal and external challenges is likely to be a tall order for Tehran.

The writer is an Islamabad-basedcolumnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi