What can restrain a US-Iran conflict

Moral pressure to protect civilians is rising in many forums, helping to set a limit on wider war.

Reuters
Demonstrators cheer outside Britain's Court of Appeal after a June 20 judgment challenging the government’s decision to grant the export of arms to Saudi Arabia.

As Iran and the United States inch closer toward a possible military confrontation in the Persian Gulf, it is worth noting another type of battleground in the Middle East – one that may help limit a wider war.

It is the battle to protect innocent civilians in the many conflicts involving Iran and other Middle Eastern powers.

On Tuesday, for example, the United Nations Security Council met in emergency session to throw a spotlight on recent mass killings by the Iran-backed regime in Syria. U.N. officials say Syrian planes are dropping barrel bombs on hospitals and similar targets in Idlib province. At least 230 people have died in bombings in the past six weeks.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted to block a multibillion-dollar weapons deal with Saudi Arabia out of concern over the killing of civilians in Yemen. The U.N. says more than 7,000 civilians have been killed in the four-year-long war, with 65% of the deaths attributed to airstrikes by a Saudi-led coalition trying to defeat Iran-backed rebels.

In breaking with President Donald Trump on the arms sale, Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham made this argument for the measure: Saudi Arabia “cannot have a strategic relationship with the United States and behave in a fashion that shows no respect for human dignity, no respect for international norms.”

Also on Thursday, a court in London ruled the British government had ignored whether Saudi airstrikes in Yemen were killing civilians in selling arms to the kingdom. About half of the Saudi air force is made up of aircraft supplied by the U.K. The neglect of civilian casualties violated humanitarian law, the court found. The U.K. will now have to assure there is “no clear risk” of British weapons being used to strike civilians in Yemen.

Such victories for humanitarian law do not make as much news as Iran’s downing of a U.S. military drone or the U.S. preparation for a counterattack. Yet they send a message of restraint and a signal that much of the world is demanding respect for innocent life in a conflict.

This sort of moral pressure can help open a door for peace talks and a diplomatic settlement. Sometimes the battleground in a conflict is not all rockets and bullets but rather appeals to conscience to embrace a shared virtue.

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