Our senators believe President Donald Trump’s Iran policy is just, legal and necessary.
Sen. Jim Inhofe praised the president’s Jan. 3 killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani as “lawful.” For Sen. James Lankford, it was “justified.” And they both back the embargo directed at — Lankford asserts — “the Iranian regime.”
“Our issue is not with the Iranian people,” Lankford maintains.
But by endorsing Soleimani’s murder, and in pushing for sanctions, I’d argue our senators show their disdain for international law, disregard for the Constitution and indifference toward mass suffering in Iran.
Start with international law. Trump justified Soleimani’s assassination as self-defense, suggesting the Iranian general wanted to blow up U.S. embassies. It was soon clear neither the president nor his top defense official bought that story. Trump “didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence” supporting it, Defense Secretary Mark Esper admitted on Jan. 12. The president himself was dismissive on Twitter the following day, claiming “it doesn’t really matter” whether Soleimani’s threat was imminent.
Actually, it matters a lot. While Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which the U.S. signed in 1945, protects “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense,” that language is clearly irrelevant here. It doesn’t apply to attacks masquerading as defensive acts. What does apply is Article 2(4), barring “the threat or use of force” in international relations. No exceptions. International law doesn’t validate Trump’s decision.
Neither does the Constitution. Our senators like to champion the document, with Lankford praising it on the Senate floor and Inhofe promoting Constitution-focused school curricula. Both of them should give it another look.
Because Article VI emphasizes — in unambiguous terms — the importance of international agreements: “all Treaties made … under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” The U.N. Charter, the Constitution says, has the force of U.S. law. Which doesn’t validate Trump’s killing of Soleimani either.
Turn now to the sanctions. Trump reimposed them after withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear agreement in May 2018. (President Barack Obama had lifted the sanctions in 2016.) The International Atomic Energy Agency responded to Trump’s decision by affirming Iran’s ongoing compliance with its “nuclear-related commitments.” Nine months later, then-Director of Intelligence Dan Coats echoed the IAEA’s findings. But the sanctions fell on Iran regardless.
In August 2018, restrictions on Iran’s purchase of U.S. currency, and on its trade in gold and other precious metals, went back into effect. That November, Washington reinstated measures limiting Iranian oil sales and subjecting dozens of Iranian banks to sanctions.
One official who helped develop Obama’s Iran sanctions, Richard Nephew, calls this type of economic punishment “a form of violence.” Let’s review the evidence.
“The consequences of redoubled U.S. sanctions,” Humans Rights Watch notes, “pose a serious threat to Iranians’ right to health and access to essential medicines — and has almost certainly contributed to documented shortages — ranging from a lack of critical drugs for epilepsy patients to limited chemotherapy medications for Iranians with cancer.”
Studies published in “The Lancet,” one of the world’s top medical journals, reinforce this finding. One report concluded U.S. policy “will inevitably lead to a decrease in survival of children with cancer” in Iran. Another article warned of “a severe situation for the provision of health services” there. The sanctions, this report continued, could have “a potentially substantive impact on mortality and morbidity” among “ordinary citizens.”
Not, in other words, “the Iranian regime” Lankford claims the embargo targets. Whether the measures he and Inhofe favor are moral or legitimate, I leave for readers to decide.
Nick Alexandrov studied U.S. foreign policy and Latin America at George Washington University. He teaches humanities at Holland Hall School.