A Reader’s Response: The Right of Self-Defense—A Question of Survival

by December 2021
The Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran, 2010. Photo credit: REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Iran’s nuclear ambitions, extensively discussed in the November–December issue of The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, are a matter of existential concern for not only Israel. Should Iran build a nuclear device, it could be easy for it to put it on a ship or an airplane and send it to New York City; or configure it for delivery by ballistic or cruise missile with Berlin, Brussels, Paris, or Rome (and ultimately, US soil) within range, in addition to Israel. 

Iran could also explode a nuclear device at high altitude and produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would cover the entire United States—most of North America—or Europe and even Russia. This EMP would kill millions of innocent civilians and send America and Europe back to the Stone Age, destroying power grids, telecommunications, and vital infrastructures (from water and food supply, to emergency services such as hospitals and firefighters). A North Korean EMP attack already poses an existential threat to America today, and North Korea may have shared it with Iran. On April 22, 2020, Iran, in a show of force, successfully launched a military satellite and could similarly launch a nuclear device. It is not surprising that this satellite is currently circling Earth at an altitude of 425 km, the exact altitude necessary to cover most of North America with an EMP. The North Korean and Iranian military satellites are both launched to the south on a polar trajectory and pass over the US. North Korea and Iran could thus make a surprise EMP attack on the US. 

According to a September 2020 report of Iran’s state-controlled Afkar News, we read in Persian that “American soil is now within the range of Iranian bombs . . . The same type of ballistic missile technology used to launch the satellite could carry nuclear, chemical or even biological weapons to wipe Israel off the map, hit US bases and allies in the region, and target NATO even in the far west of Europe. American soil is now within the range of Iranian bombs.”

A US presidential executive order of March 29, 2019 allows the secretary of defense to defend the nation from adversarial EMPs and enables the director of National Intelligence to coordinate the collection, analysis, and assessment of the capabilities of its adversaries to conduct an EMP attack. US deterrence, however, may have eroded in the wake of its withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Iran not only wants to become nuclear. It has also developed medium and long-range ballistic missiles already capable of reaching Israel and Europe. Key Iranian figures continually threaten “death” to both Israel and America, but in Europe there is a tendency to downplay these threats, even though they violate Article 2 (4) of the UN Charter. Since the UN seems unwilling or incapable of putting an end to these threats, or even of taking seriously the way in which “jihad” is highlighted in the Iranian Constitution, it should not be surprising that Israel perceives the threat as real and permanent. The UN failure to implement UNSCR 1701 and demilitarize—or at least restrain—Hezbollah adds to Israel’s concerns. But a nuclear Iran is also a threat to non-Muslim countries, which are seen as the enemies of Allah; thus far, the usual international procedures and avenues have proven futile. There seems no reasonable alternative to the use of force—before Iran has nuclear launch capability. After that, it will be too late for regional stability and global survival, in a world where the procurement and even use of the bomb will become a real option.

All states have an inherent and natural right of self-defense to stop the threat of an attack by another state, as understood in customary international law. Legal standards govern the need for pre-emptive strikes and forcible measures of anticipatory self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter and International Customary Law. Article 51 must not be taken so literally as to preclude a victim from using force in self-defense until it has actually been attacked. It should be interpreted to mean that a state might use military force “when it regards itself as intolerably threatened by the activities of another.” Thus, “it would be a travesty of the purposes of the Charter to compel a defending state to allow its assailant to deliver the first, and perhaps fatal, blow.” 

Under customary international law, there are several conditions for the lawful exercise of the right of self-defense: The threat must be imminent, and the necessity for action must be immediate, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means nor moment for deliberation. Given the open threats to destroy Israel (while the radioactive cloud could also kill Lebanese, Syrians, Turks, Iraqis, Kurds, Cypriots, and Egyptians), the possibility that the Iranian regime would act to expedite the apocalyptic coming of the Twelfth Imam (also known as the Mahdi), cannot be dismissed. As Prof. Bernard Lewis argued, in an address on February 17, 2009 at the Sixth Annual Jerusalem Conference, “In the Muslim perception, [the conflict] is basically a religious conflict.” Under these conditions, it is not safe to bet on mutually assured destruction (MAD). As Lewis added, “with their apocalyptic mind-set, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent but an inducement.” Closer to our day, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders have made it clear that Iran “will not back down even a single millimeter from [our goal] of erasing it [Israel] from the geographical [map] of the world—even if we get chopped up into pieces. This is our biggest ideal.” It is not only Israel that stands to be destroyed. For Iranian true believers, the saying attributed to the Prophet that the end of days will come “when the shepherds of black camels start boasting and competing with others in the construction of higher buildings. And the Hour is one . . . which nobody knows except Allah” (Bukhari, Book 2, Hadith 43) may quite resemble present events in the Gulf. 

In the face of such concepts, the US, Israel, Europe, and the Gulf States are entitled to exercise their inherent and natural right of self-defense, as understood in customary international law, in order to stop the threat of nuclear obliteration that may lead to the death of billions of humans in the Middle East, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. 

Let us all labor to stop the bomb before it blows up in our faces.

Michael Calvo and Aaron Braunstein
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