Yes, A Western Attack on Iran Would Be Unprovoked and Illegal
Colby and Long write “that attacking Iran without provocation is a dangerous course.” But of course no one is talking about attacking Luxembourg. That really would be an unprovoked attack. In the case of Iran–which has spent decades illegally supporting terrorist groups, killing and kidnapping American citizens, threatening its neighbors, and developing an illicit nuclear weapons program–an attack would hardly be unprovoked.
In light of the recent history of U.S. and Israeli policy towards Iran, which has included providing support to ethnic separatist and terrorist groups inside Iran, targeting nuclear scientists for assassination on multiple occasions, setting off explosions at Iranian military installations, and regularly threatening the possibility of military attack, this is not the standard any American should want to set up to justify the use of force. The reality is that the U.S. has absolutely no justification under international law to launch military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities (or anything else inside Iran), and the vast majority of governments around the world (and most Iranians) would regard such an attack as both illegal and unprovoked. Even if one wanted to argue that U.S. attacks on Iran were a sort of belated retaliation for Iran’s support for Shi’ite militias in Iraq, for example, the attacks on Iran would still be illegal. There is no credible argument that launching a so-called preventive attack on Iran has anything to do with national self-defense, and the U.S. and any other governments involved would suffer from the international backlash against the attack.
Boot preferred to challenge Colby and Long’s description of the attack, but he never even attempts to refute their claims about the dangers that such an attack poses. He blithely skips past one of the more important objections to attacking Iran, which is that Iran can retaliate and inflict some significant damage on U.S. and allied interests. Colby and Long refer to this briefly, but also at The National Interest site Malou Innocent has described Iran’s ability to retaliate:
If attacked—again, if attacked—Iran would have the casus belli to retaliate, and although Iran’s military is woefully substandard, it does possess certain asymmetric advantages that deserve consideration. A great deal has already been written about the Strait of Hormuz—the shipping gateway for one-fifth of the world’s oil. But Tehran could also use Shehab-1, -2, and -3 missiles to target U.S. personnel, camps and regional bases in Afghanistan (Herat, Kandahar and Shindand), Kuwait (Ali Al Salem, Ahmed Al Jaber, Buehring, Spearhead, Patriot and Arifjan), Qatar (Al Udeid), the United Arab Emirates (Al Dhafra), Bahrain (Naval Support Activity, Al Manamah) and Oman (Thumrait). In addition, Iran exerts influence in the Levant through proxies like Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of which can attack—and have attacked—Israel.
If Iran retaliated, there would be the danger of an escalating conflict that went far beyond what Boot dismissively refers to as “limited air strikes against a few nuclear sites.” The U.S. could quickly find itself in a full-scale war with a country of over seventy million people and a more formidable military than any that our forces have had to face in the last thirty-five years. Like many other Iran hawks, Boot is trying to minimize what he is proposing to make the idea of attacking Iran seem less dangerous and more rational than it is.