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New UN Sanctions Make US-Iran War More Likely

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New UN Sanctions Make US-Iran War More Likely

by William H. White

March 10, 2008

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1803: Casus Belli

    Passage of the third United Nations Security Council sanctions resolution against Iran makes a war between the United States and Iran more likely. The Bush administration has been pressing the United Nations Security Council for months to pass a third set of sanctions against Iran, which the council passed as resolution 1803 on March 3, 2008. As part of this effort, the United States delegation has shown uncharacteristic flexibility regarding various provisions of the draft resolution, as Secretary of State Rice and other administration officials have repeatedly called for swift passage of the resolution.

    There is reason to suspect the Bush administration’s push for passage is actually focused on a single item: Provision (11), which calls upon member states to inspection of cargo bound to or from Iran. This is based on two the fundamental assessments: 1) the Bush administrations has long planned to attack Iran; and, 2) the rationales for these attacks have shifted from nuclear weapons development to direct responsibility for US casualties in Iraq. And now it is likely a new shift in rationale is underway, claiming hostile actions against US vessels and using Provision (11) to create the pretext.

Provision (11) of Resolution 1803 (2008) reads as follows:

Calls upon all States, in accordance with their national legal authorities and legislation and consistent with international law, in particular the law of the sea and relevant international civil aviation agreements, to inspect the cargoes to and from Iran, of aircraft and vessels, at their airports and seaports, owned or operated by Iran Air Cargo and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line, provided there are reasonable grounds to believe that the aircraft or vessel is transporting goods prohibited under this resolution or resolution 1737 (2006) or resolution 1747 (2007);

    It is likely that the Bush administration will now move swiftly, within the next few weeks, to use this authority to create a casus belli for attacking Iran. While the resolution limits inspections to air craft and vessels owned or operated by Iran Air Cargo and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line as well as only at air and sea ports, these restrictions represent fine print issues to the Bush administration that it can circumvent or ignore, perhaps by claims that interceptions at sea are only in pursuit of refused authorized inspections at some port or intelligence about the cargo only arose after a vessel left port.

    Such claims could then be followed by a much publicized "chase" of the vessel bound for Iran, accompanied by demands the vessel return to a neutral port for inspection and claims the US is exhausting every effort avoid a crisis. This would continue until the vessel approaches Iranian territorial waters, where it would then be boarded with the maximum expectation of a confrontation between US and Iranian naval vessels or aircraft. It is assumed the Bush administration would make these public demands as humiliating as possible for Iran in order to reduce the likelihood Iran would comply.   

Prelude to War

    Recent encounters involving US and Iranian naval vessels show an evolution toward a much more aggressive and manipulative posture in official Washington's characterization of these events. The widely reported incident between US and Iranian vessels on January 6, 2008 in the Strait of Hormuz was actually the third such recent encounter. The first two encounters occurred in December 2007, during one of which on December 19, 2007 the USS Whidbey Island fired warning shots toward an approaching Iranian vessel, causing the Iranian vessel to alter course. The first two encounters passed unreported at the time and were largely routine for the area of operations. However, the third encounter on January 6, 2008 was not only characterized as a far more grave "incident" by official Washington, accompanied by reports by official US sources of threats made against the US vessels, based on video and voice transmission "evidence" released by the Pentagon. Examination of the voice transmission recordings indicated the actual segment containing the only threat was of doubtful authenticity; and, a later release of an Iranian video of the same incident indicated the Pentagon had mischaracterized its own video.

    The import of this evolution, given passage of Security Council Resolution 1803, is clear: While Iran could avoid future incidents by keeping its patrol vessels clear of US vessels so long as both parties operate with good faith in pursuit of innocent passage, United States intercepting and boarding Iranian vessels provides Iran with little opportunity to avoid incidents the US could exploit to justify military action against Iran, should Bush make the decision to attack Iran, using self-defense as justification to bypass or game Congressional approval.

While the actual course of events is unknown and present many alternative possibilities, circumstances suggest one probable sequence of events:

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