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US, Israeli threats of force against Iran are illegal and harm chances for a deal

Even if we set aside the ethical and political implications of America's threatening Iran in the course of negotiations, there are two major legal issues with these threats. First, the 'threat of force' is illegal under international law. And second, any agreement reached by threat is invalid.

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Watching the highest political authorities of Israel and the United States so impetuously violate a fundamental rule of international law is on its own very alarming. It signals to Iran and the international community that the West is not willing to play by the rules. It also greatly undermines the credibility and impartiality of all international organizations involved in the negotiating process.

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Some would rightly argue that if any other state had so blatantly breached such a central bedrock of the post-UN charter international order, the Security Council or, at least, the Secretary General of the United Nations would have certainly issued a strong condemnation in reply.

Second, and more important, according to a well-known principle of international law, an agreement that is obtained through duress and coercion is considered invalid. The 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties – which codifies some of the most fundamental norms in the field – is very clear on the subject. Its Article 52 specifically renders void any international agreement “which has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law.”

The International Court of Justice confirmed this position in a 1973 case between the United Kingdom and Iceland, stating in very clear terms that: “There can be no doubt, as is implied in the Charter of the United Nations and recognized in Article 52 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, that under customary international law, an agreement concluded under the threat of force is void.”

In other words, even if Tehran does cave in to the “clear and credible military threat” that Mr. Netanyahu expects world powers to put forth, and if it actually concedes to a nuclear agreement procured under duress, Iran could very well invoke Article 52 to nullify it at later date. In fact, the military threat that AIPAC, Netanyahu, and his American backers seem to view today as valuable “leverage” in the ongoing negotiations with Iran could very well turn into the Achilles' heel of any future arrangement.

Netanyahu and those American officials who are poised to make military threats in the course of negotiations should be careful not to end up procuring an “agreement” that contains the legal seeds of its own dissolution.

Reza Nasri is an international lawyer specializing in Iranian affairs and charter and foreign relations law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.


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