The US – Iran Conflict: A Breach Of International Law

The US – Iran Conflict: A Breach Of International Law

Author: Akashmika Jena, University Law College, Vani Vihar.


The very purpose for the origination of the International law was aimed towards endorsing economic and social growth alongside furthering international concord and security. The particular article addresses the prevailing conflict between US and Iran alongside bringing light to the instances of breach of International law by the same. This article discloses several prudent occurrences such as the 1983 Beirut barrack bombings, Iran-contra scandal, the infamous “Axis of evil”, 2013 nuclear deal as well as the shootdown of RQ-4A which proved to be monumental happenings in those times thereby shaping the present relation.  Detailed analysis of violation of principles of International law by the United States and Iran has been portrayed through incidents, for instance, the hostage crisis, the notorious killing of Qasem Soleimani, attacks on US base by Iran and the disreputable Muslim ban. Lastly, the article manoeuvres to improve the diplomatic relations between the two nations safeguarding the inviolability of International law.


Iran and the United States are two authoritative states had no prior political relations since the 1980s. With Pakistan serving as the defensive command of Iran in the United States Switzerland has been acting as the defensive commander of the United States in Iran.  Upholding the diplomatic relations since the late 19th century, the United States was acclaimed as a true sovereign. However, the relationship experienced significant downfall with the overthrow of the Mossadegh government by a coup authorised by the CIA as well as MI6. Furthermore, their existing liaison worsened with the several upcoming and monumental incidents which drastically affected all future negotiations and agreements.

1983 – Beirut Barrack Bombing:

The Beirut Barracks bombings of 1983 killed over 307 people – 241 US and 58 French personnel of the Multinational Force or MNF along with six civilians followed by two attackers. This incident disrupted the peacekeeping operation, ultimately leading to their withdrawal from Lebanon.

1985-86: Iran-Contra scandal:

The Iran-Contra scandal of 1985-86 was a monumental affair involving trading US arms and missiles aiming to free Americans kept hostages by terrorists in Lebanon. Hence owing to the purpose above, followed by the secret vending of weapons to Iran, Reagan’s government illegally funded the Contras of Nicaragua opposing the Marxist administration.

In the case of Nicaragua v. the United States [(1986) ICJ Rep 14 ] the court held that joint treaty reservations cannot preclude the court from taking into consideration the provisions of customary international law irrespective of the treaty obligations and customary law surrounding the identical subject matter. Nevertheless, customary law subsists freely of treaty law.[1]   

1983 – 1988 – Bombings of Western Agencies:

During 1980s Iran was involved in several terrorist bombings of embassies of west along with other embassies. However, the most monumental attacks were the bombing of United States Marine quarters in Lebanon in 1983 by the Hezbollah Operatives. Similarly, the infamous Tanker War (1980-88) otherwise acknowledged as the Iran- Iraq war further intensified the clashes between the United States and Iran.

 1988 – Iranian passenger plane shot down:

The alleged shooting of Iran Air Flight 655 an Airbus A3000 by American fighter plane USS Vincennes led to a significant break in the relation between US and Iran. However, the Iranian government accused the incident of being purely intentional, thereby breaching the principles of international law to which later the US government clarified of being mistaken as an F-14 fighter jet. Hence as per International law following the improper use of force and injuries arising out of it, the United States was not liable for indemnification for the injuries or the damages caused.

2002: Axis of evil

The 2002 address of then-President George Bush led to an outrage in Iran. In his speech President Bush indicted Iran being a part of Axis of Evil alongside Iraq and North Korea.

Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752:

Followed by missile attacks on Iraq, a Boeing 737-800 crash-landed killing at least 176 onboard passengers including 130 Iranians. Later the Iranian officials clarified it to have been arisen due to technical failures which brew scepticism for US aviation personnel from being denied to access the respective black boxes.

2013-2016: Closer ties, and a nuclear deal

Post the appointment of Hassan Rouhani as the 7th President, Iran along with P5+1, introduced an agreement proclaimed as the Joint plan of action aimed at limiting and constraining Iran’s nuclear agendas, thereby facilitating transparency. After the comprehensive Lausanne agreement, subsequently, in the year 2015, Iran landed a prolonged nuclear agreement.

 The respective agreement led to Iran limiting its nuclear undertakings against the removal of unlawful economic sanctions. Lastly, Iran, alongside P5+1 acclaimed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action intending to suspend and eradicate prudent and unjustified sanctions on Iran in return of Iran limiting its nuclear activities. The same was later upheld with a prerequisite fulfilment of IAEA Roadmap alongside restricting Iran’s nuclear programmes.

Sanctions against Iran:

The United States, among other countries, had imposed several sanctions against Iran. Primarily the sanctions imposed as early as 1973 by the United States were about the seizing of US embassy situated in Tehran by a group of radical students preaching Islamic Revolution. Secondly, such sanctions were imposed against Iran under the Reagan government due to the activities of Iran between (1981- 87). The third round of sanctions against Iran was imposed in pursuance to the United Nations Security Council resolution of 1737 succeeding the resolution of 1696 which demanded a halt in Iran’s uranium enrichment activity.

 2019: Iranian shootdown of US drone

The shootdown of US surveillance drone RQ-4A Global Hawk by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps dated June 20th, 2019 resulted in widespread outrage. The drone attack was held to be the direct consequence of the violation of Iranian airspace as declared by Hossein Salami, the commander of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The US Central Command later clarified this as a gratuitous attack.

Breach of International Law:

As per the provisions of International law, “A state violates international law when it commits an “internationally wrongful act”, a breach of an international obligation that the state was bound by at the time when the act took place. A state is bound to act according to international treaties it has signed as well as rules of customary international law”[2].

Owing to the provisions of the coveted International Law if a state infringes the norms of International law then it is the sole responsibility of the state to terminate the illicit and illegitimate code of action and take appropriate and righteous measures to mend the resulting substantial and ethical damages. Hence it serves as a duty of the states to abide by the principles of the coveted International law to maintain world peace and harmony

Instances of violation of International Law:

Hostage Crisis:

The infamous hostage crisis of 1979 served as a prudent example of clear violation of the principals of International Law wherein preachers of the Islamic Revolution seized the US embassy located in Tehran thereby detaining over 50 American diplomats as hostages for 444 days. “As per Article 29 of The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable”[3] . He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. Hence the illicit captivation of hostages was a clear violation of the principle of Diplomatic Immunity enshrined in International Law.

The killing of Qasem Soleimani:

The killing of Qasem Soleimani designated as the military commander of Iran on January 3rd, 2020, led to indignation in the hearts of Iranians. Furthermore, upon questioning, President Donald Trump exclaimed of expecting an impending attack from Iran.

Now, owing to the principles of the United Nations Charter 1945, Article 2(4) restricts the use of force or threatening to use force about the territorial integrity of a state bans the threat or use of force, political liberation or independence of a state or other similar motives proving to be erratic and erroneous in the purview of UN. Along with that, the United Nations Charter of 1945 also postulates two exceptions approving the use of force with a view of ensuring tranquillity, security, peace upholding the right of self-defence fronting armed attacks.

“Self-defence enshrined in Article 51 of the Charter states that “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self – defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”[4] 

In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran v. the United States of America [December 12th, 1996] upon the plea of self-defence against Iran, the court after careful and detailed analysis held that the United States had failed to justify the fulfilment of necessary grounds to constitute satisfyingly self- defence thereby concluding that the United States was not permitted to count on the proviso of Article XX paragraph 1 (d) of Treaty of Amity, 1955.[5]

Anticipatory self-defence:

As per the principle of anticipatory self-defence, the prevailing circumstances must be prompt, overpowering and inevitable without the scope of negotiation.

Hence the plea of anticipatory self-defence taken by President Donald Trump violates the principles of United Nations Charter as well as the objectives of anticipatory self-defence.

Iran’s attack on US base:

Iran’s apprehended attack on US Embassy located in Iraq on January 26th was believed to a belligerent reprisal which assents a direct course of action to be justified in the spectrum of International Law in response to the unlawful doings of a rival. However, the plea of belligerent reprisal is held feeble in the eyes of international humanitarian law.

The infamous Muslim ban:

As per the provisions of the UNRC (1951), it is the sole obligation of the US government to ensure security, protection and shelter to those fronting prosecution. With US President Trump’s executive order of 120 days suspension of the United States Refugee Resettlement Programme alongside refusal of the housing of the persecuted refugees hailing from Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. Violated the very principle of the Convention, thereby demeaning the stature of International law.

Now, while the United Nations Refugee Convention, 1951 facilitates eradication of individual sections involved in the commission of crimes from availing protection under the decree of the Convention, however, it does not allow for flagrant banning of a particular section based on nationality. Following that Tump’s executive order also blatantly contradicted with sec 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of ICCPR necessitating equal treatment of all in the eyes of the law irrespective of race, nationality, religion or social origin. Article 26 provides no scope for discrimination, alongside that the order also violated sec 4 of the Multilateral Agreement which states that at the time of emergency or imminent danger to national security, the states are not authorised from disobeying or declining the duties bestowed upon them barring the states from discriminating n grounds of religion, race, colour, sex.


“When diplomacy ends, War begins” – Adolf Hitler

Hence to conclude, as the famous words of Adolf Hitler suggest, both  United States and Iran being two powerful nations must resort towards resolving the common complications with a strategic and diplomatic viewpoint of maintaining stable international relations safeguarding international peace and security.

[1] Nicaragua v. United States ICJ Rep 14 (1986)


[3] Malcolm N. Shaw, International Law 533 ( 4th ed. 1997)


[5] Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America, General List No. 90  I.C.J. Reports p. 803 (1996)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: