by Miceál O’Hurley
Part II – Continued from First Instalment of Series that Began on 27 October 2020
DUBLIN – I want to address a rather tragic affair that occurred earlier this year. Mr. Ambassador, On 11 January of this year units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner departing Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport for Kyiv. Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752 (PS752) took-off only hours after Iran launched retaliatory strikes against United States installations inside Iraq following President Trump authorising the use of a drone strike to kill Major General Qasem Soleimani on 3 January 2020. Firstly, why did it take days before Iran admitted that the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) had launched surface-to-air missiles that brought down PS752?
This was one of the greatest tragedies to have happened in Iran. It occurred when the whole country was in a state of shock and mourning in the aftermath of the US assassination of Major General Soleimani. Most of the victims of this tragedy were Iranian citizens. It was an unprecedented incident and it took three days for the authorities to investigate it. When all the facts and information were uncovered, full responsibility was taken by the authorities. I believe that whatever could have been done in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy was done.
I believe Imam Khomeini Airport handles all international travel leaving domestic flights to Mehrabad Airport some 48 kilometers away. Iran is said to have been on its highest ‘state of alert’ when the shoot-down occurred. What do you have to say to Iran’s critics that it only demonstrates Iran’s command and control structures, and its military preparedness are dysfunctional, when it is unable to distinguish between a civilian airliner and an external threat? Is the IRGC within the Government’s control?
This tragic incident doesn’t reflect on any aspect of Iran’s military capabilities or preparedness. It is important not to read too much into what was a horrific, yet isolated accident caused by human error.
Iran’s military capabilities are continually improving and were aptly demonstrated by its recent shooting down, using locally-developed missiles, of a highly-sophisticated American drone which had trespassed into Iranian territory.
As you know, Iran has been in negotiation with Ukraine, Canada and other States that had citizens aboard PS752 when it was mistakenly shot down over Tehran by the IRGC. The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), a State news organ, reported on 23 August that it was prepared to pay compensation to the victims of PS752 “within international laws and without discrimination.” Mr. Ambassador, how are the compensation negotiations progressing and do you believe they can be settled without recourse to the International Court of Justice?
The negotiations are going well and are proceeding apace. Iran will honor its commitment to pay compensation to all the victims of this tragedy. All issues will be fully resolved under the Warsaw Convention and recourse to the International Court of Justice will not be required.
What thoughts do you have, Dr. Eslami, about how the world should view the difference in Iran taking responsibility for the downing of PS752 and, by contrast, the shoot-down of MH17 over Ukraine by Russian forces. Russia continues to deny responsibility for downing MH17 despite what appears to be quite damning evidence being presented before a court in The Netherlands while Iran has admitted its error and has assumed responsibility.
Yes, Iran took full responsibility for this tragic accident because that was the right thing to do. From the outset, Iran was also open to including Ukrainian and Canadian aviation experts in the process. The legal and administrative processes to compensate the victims in a lawful and principled way have already begun.
We all remember that sad day in 1988 when the USS Vincennes, a US Navy guided-missile cruiser, fired a SM-2MR surface-to-air missile and shot-down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 souls on board. It took until 1996 and an action at the International Court of Justice, the ‘World Court’ in the Hague if you will, before the United States agreed to pay some $61.8 million, albeit on an ex gratia basis, without ever acknowledging responsibility. Over the decades we have seen Russia shoot-down a Korean airliner, Russia down MH17, Iran down a Ukrainian airliner and other such tragedies. Civilian airline passengers have paid a heavy toll for being caught in the middle of international disputes. What is Iran prepared to do to help promote the safety of civilian airlines during times of hostility through coordinated international initiatives?
Iran has always provided safe flight paths for civilian aircraft even during times of war and foreign hostility. Iran has also offered logistical and technical assistance to civilian airplanes travelling through Iranian airspace. The 1988 Iran Air tragedy caused by the US military was a stark, devastating incident for which the US has never apologized or accepted responsibility.
The US approach was in sharp contrast to the Iranian response to the Ukrainian Air tragedy in January 2020. The enormous US military presence in the Persian Gulf has undermined the region’s security, particularly for civilian aircraft. It was just a couple of months ago that US fighter jets harassed and endangered an Iranian civilian airplane in Syrian air space for no justifiable reason.
I want to return, if I may, to President Trump’s authorisation to launch a tactical drone strike to kill General Soleimani while he was at the public airport in Baghdad. Iraq claims they were not notified about the US operation, despite it being conducted on their soil and US troops being present at their discretion. It has caused a severe rupture in US-Iraqi relations. Has displeasure with the US allowed Iran to have greater influence in Iraq? What is the status of Iraqi-Iranian relations in the aftermath of the vote by the Iraqi Parliament to end US troop presence in Iraq?
The Iraqi people, like Iranian people, share the desire for the US military to leave the region. The national governments and parliaments of Iran and Iraq have become aware of a common cause that transcends our geographic borders and separate national identities. Our aim is to work together to counter the instability and foreign hostility we both face whether it is ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions, military occupation or the enormous threat posed by ISIL.
The assassination of Major General Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was a devastating blow to the struggle to defeat ISIL. Both men were renowned and highly respected military leaders with a tremendous track record in fighting ISIL whose original emergence and subsequent growth was a by-product of US policies in the region.
In the past Iran and Iraq have worked in partnership and stood side by side, particularly in the effort to overcome the terrifying devastation caused by the 2003 US invasion and subsequent military occupation. Our relationship is built upon support and cooperation rather than influence per se and the relations between our people are built upon deep historic, cultural and religious ties. It is important to also say that Iraq is an independent sovereign state and going forward, it is in Iran’s interest to help the Iraqi state to continue to strengthen its political stability and institutions.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard, who is also the Director of Columbia University‘s Global Freedom of Expression project, rendered her opinion that Trump’s approval of act of killing General Soleimani was illegal as the US did not demonstrate that he posed an ‘imminent threat’ to US citizens or assets. Callamard also concluded that the killing sets an alarming precedent — it was the first targeted drone killing of a senior foreign government official on the territory of a third country.
Hillary Mann Leverett (a political risk consultant and former director of Iran affairs at the White House’s National Security Council) called the assassination of Soleimani “flatly illegal”. Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden said of Trump’s decision to have Soleimani killed, “deserved to be brought to justice for his crimes against American troops and thousands of innocents throughout the region,” then added the decision to kill him was, “…a hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region.”
Even the outgoing Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in the United States Congress, Elliot Engel, said “The 2002 authorization was passed to deal with Saddam Hussein. This law had nothing to do with Iran or Iranian government officials in Iraq. To suggest that 18 years later this authorization could justify killing an Iranian official stretches the law far beyond anything Congress ever intended….” Mr. Ambassador, where does all this leave Iran in terms of seeking recourse for the killing, or murder, of General Soleimani and what does it portend for future international conduct by all nations if it is not challenged under the rule of law?
You cannot look at such deliberate acts of terrorism solely in terms of US legality. Whether or not they are justifiable in US law is not the issue. Prominent political figures around the world, including those in the US, have expressed their concerns and dismay about this, although some did not dare to go public on it. You could hardly find a leader in the world who supported this outrageous act. Netanyahu was the only person who renewed his allegiance with the perpetrators of this crime. The assassination of Major General Soleimani and his companions were extra-judicial executions. The US blatantly violated international law and Iraqi territorial sovereignty. This was an international crime and an illegal use of force in violation of the UN Charter and every norm of conduct within the international community.
Major General Soleimani was so much more than a military leader. His killing was a sign of desperation from the US which had increasingly found itself lacking the capacity to deal with his extraordinary appeal. He was a charismatic and inspirational role model for an entire generation of Iranian people and beyond. Ironically, his assassination has strengthened his stature and appeal beyond his life. The US did not bury his enormous influence with his body. The legacy of Major General Soleimani will endure beyond his grave.
Iran has never said it wouldn’t seek recourse for such brutal killings. The case is an open one and we wait for the time when the perpetrators of this crime will be brought to justice. It is also important to see the assassinations as part of the wider legacy of the US government as delivered by the Trump administration. If the international community doesn’t deal with such acts of international terrorism, it will lead to unstable situations with spillover effects in terms of increased chaos, disorder and lawlessness.
I want to turn more fully now to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which most people call the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal’. The JCPOA was designed to maintain the status quo and deter Iran from become a nuclear arms capable country. Declaring its intent to develop nuclear power for peaceful, domestic purposes, Iran signed the deal along with the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, Germany and the European Union at Lausanne in 2015.
For the background of our readers, the Deal encompassed Iran’s nuclear enrichment and processing limitations, provided for monitoring and dealt with the contentious issue of sanctions. I think it is clear to say that when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was able to verify compliance with the terms, three things would happen:
- The EU would terminate all nuclear-related economic sanctions;
- The United States would cease the application of all nuclear-related secondary economic and financial sanctions; and,
- The UN Security Council would endorse the agreement with a resolution which would terminate all previous nuclear-related resolutions and incorporate certain restrictive measures for a mutually agreed period of time.
Is that a fair summary of the situation, Mr. Ambassador?
Yes, you have made some valid points about the JCPOA. Of course, it was a very detailed agreement – totaling 152 pages, so it is difficult to fully summarize it in a few paragraphs. It needs to be comprehensively analyzed in order for its magnitude and benefits to be appreciated. It has been widely-recognized as one of the most significant multilaterally-negotiated and internationally-endorsed agreements in the history of nuclear diplomacy. Prior to the US withdrawal from the agreement, it was considered a verifiable success (even within US foreign policy-making circles) in achieving exactly what it was designed to achieve.
Admittedly, there have been some differences between Iran and the United States concerning the minutiae of the deal. Notwithstanding, except for possibly the United Kingdom, all other signatories have largely sustained their support for the JCPOA. Were you and your Government surprised by the Trump Administration’s claims that there had been significant breaches of the JCPOA leading them to signal their intention to withdraw from the Agreement?
Trump and his Secretary of State are notorious for making bizarre and unsubstantiated claims. There have been no differences concerning the minutiae of the deal. The US administration’s decision to withdraw from the deal and its violation of UNSCR 2231 was not made because of Iran’s breaches; it was made in spite of Iran’s full compliance with the deal which has been repeatedly documented and verified by the IAEA.
Let me bring to mind the remarks of Yikiya Amano, the Director General of the IAEA on 4 March 2018. In his presentation to the IAEA Board of Governors, Director Amano reiterated the collective conclusion of the IAEA, “Iran is implementing its nuclear commitments.” That seemed fairly unequivocal. Consequently, the United Nations lifted all United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Iran under the authority of UN Resolution 2231 as provided for in the JPCOA.
Nonetheless, President Trump announced his intention to remove the United States from the JCPOA in 2018. When Iran complained it should no longer be bound by a deal the US unilaterally voided, and returned to enriching uranium at higher levels, Trump then went even further and threatened to impose sanctions on any governments, corporations or bodies, even within the EU, that continued to do business with Iran. Is this Iran’s understanding of the situation?
The IAEA documentation of Iranian compliance with the terms of the JCPOA are unequivocal, if not irrefutable. However, despite Iranian compliance, the US withdrew from the deal and violated UNSCR 2231 against the expressed wishes of the international community, especially the other signatories to the deal – China, Russia, the UK, Germany and France. The sanctions imposed by the US thereafter were unilateral, extraterritorial sanctions which have been consistently opposed by the United Nations and the European Union.
Iran still remains in full compliance with the deal despite the re-imposition of the most severe sanctions in history covering every aspect of trade, commerce and finance and in spite of the EU’s lack of commitment to live up to its obligations under the JCPOA. It is very important to note that Iran’s recourse to a higher level of uranium enrichment, after a grace period of one year following the US withdrawal, took place in accordance with the exact terms of the JCPOA’s Article 36 which allows for such measures, so it is not a breach of the deal.
Ambassador Eslami, the Trump Administration instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to have a resolution introduced at the UNSC to extend sanctions on Iran owing to what Secretary Pompeo called “… continued, gross violations of the JCPOA.” Were you surprised that within 24-hours of introducing the Resolution 13 of the 15 permanent and rotating members of the UNSC expressed their intent to vote against the US Resolution, citing the hypocrisy of the Trump Administration asking for compliance of the JCPOA, an agreement they had themselves withdrawn from 2 years earlier?
This was the pinnacle of abnormal behavior that the US has been engaging in recent years. US unilateralism was decisively defeated by the norms and rules of multilateralism. The UNSC did the right thing in defending its integrity, principles and the UN Charter. The reaction starkly illustrated the diplomatic isolation of the US. It was an indication of the irrelevance of their demands, even in the eyes of its closest allies. Its arguments were completely devoid of logic let alone legal substance.
Ultimately, the US Resolution was defeated in the UNSC. Given the Trump Administration’s failure to get their historic partners to re-impose sanctions on Iran, and those same-said signatory countries signaling their continued commitment to the JCPOA, what lies ahead for Iran in the area of the JCPOA and continued Iranian nuclear development?
All of the signatories to the JCPOA (bar the US) have maintained their support. Iran continues to see the value of remaining committed to its implementation. The JCPOA was never meant to be a perfect deal from either the Iranian or other sides’ perspectives, but it was an objective agreement which addressed an issue which put obstacles in the way of Iran’s economic development.
Iran has never sought to acquire a nuclear weapon. To remove mischievous allegations which were pretexts for economic sanctions, assurances were given to the international community about this through the JCPOA. However, the deal requires the full participation of all signatories in order to survive. And a big part of that compliance is ensuring that sanctions are lifted and that Iran receives the economic benefits it was promised by the JCPOA. This includes the EU countries in particular, since they have also fallen short of fulfilling their obligations under the agreement.
Iran has suffered enormous damages because of the re-imposition of US sanctions in direct contravention of the deal and international law. The starting point in restoring the good faith required to rescue the JCPOA would be some compensation measures to repair some of those unjustifiable damages.
I want to raise the issue of Israel for a moment.
There has been a long-running legal battle between Israel and Iran over a 1968 joint Israeli-Iranian venture known as Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC), a pre-Revolution joint-enterprise which sought to pipe crude oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Israel nationalised EAPC after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The matter went to arbitration and the courts, in both France and Switzerland, over the billions of dollars of damages for assets and revenues Iran alleges it lost in the years since.
In 2016, the Swiss Federal Tribunal decided, on appeal, Israel must pay Iran more than $1.1 billion in addition to the almost $500,000 in legal fees incurred by Iran. The decision is final and binding in international law as both Israel and Iran submitted to the jurisdiction of the Courts. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the time that despite the matter dragging through the courts for years, and Israel’s commitments in international law, Israel would refuse to pay Iran and ignore the Judgment of the Court. Ambassador Eslami, has Israel since met its international obligations and paid Iran the more than $1.1 billion plus legal costs, and if not, what does that say about the Rule of Law?
No, Israel has not met any international commitments in this respect, but this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because international law is anathema to Israel.
This is one of the many international obligations that Israel is disregarding. The world has seen consistent violations by Israel of UN resolutions, rulings of the International Court of Justice, peace agreements with the Palestinians, and basic norms and standards of human rights in the occupied territories. Israel has no respect for what the international community cherishes as fundamental values.
There is an underlying question that arises here, especially given events emanating from the United Kingdom in mid-September surrounding Brexit. What is the future of diplomacy, for any country, when nations unilaterally withdraw from agreements and become unreliable partners in terms of international agreements?
I am optimistic that there is a future for diplomacy despite unilateral actions from certain states. Like many other social constructs in the context of the international community, diplomacy is what we make it. Our shared destiny is in our hands and we can build on it or ruin it. Multilateralism is more than just an ideal value. It is not a matter of choice. It is a necessity. In the face of increasing global challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic and other global health issues, international peace and security, climate change, food security, inequality and persistent underdevelopment, etc. multilateral responses to these problems is a global imperative.
Any unilateral action or gesture undermines this global imperative. We have seen recent examples of UK and US unilateral moves and the risks that they pose to international cooperation. The future of diplomacy is dependent upon adherence to the principles, rules and laws governing it and the capacity to diminish unilateral deviations. In the long run, even bullies will have to abide by the norms and imperatives of interdependence and mutual vulnerability or face isolation and pay the price.
Let me ask the question this way. President Trump authorised the killing of General Soleimani and it is the consensus of most scholars and statesmen is that he broke international law, if not US law in doing so. Trump then withdraws from the JCPOA and yet asks the UN to punish Iran for what the US describes as violations of the JCPOA, a position flatly rejected by the UNSC. Now we have the United Kingdom announcing it intends on “break[ing] the law in a specific and limited way” with regard to the Brexit Agreement. Israel instituted legal proceedings against Iran and yet when the Courts determined Israel owed Iran $1.1 billion plus costs, Israel simply refused to pay. What does this say about the ‘Rule of Law’ in today’s world?
There is no magic way or quick solution for the predicament of bullying. However, the threshold of tolerance for unlawful arbitrary actions must diminish. The civilized world should not let this kind of arrogance and irresponsibility become the new normal. International law and institutions constitute the backbone of human civilization. The alternatives are chaos, anarchy and the law of the jungle. We should confront bullying like a contagious virus. No one’s safety is guaranteed in a pandemic. Being indifferent to the victimization of others in a community could be devastating for everybody.
Iran, for its part, has resisted and defied bullying in every possible way. Others must do the same. This takes courage and requires sacrifices. We are proud that by adhering to our Islamic worldview and principles and by relying on our rich national and cultural heritage we have set an example for the international community in resisting and standing up against bullies, be it Saddam Hussein or Donald Trump.
You can continue to read Part III (the final installment) of this Series, including discussion of the Rule of Law, International Relations, Brexit, Sanctions and the Iranian Economy, the Humanitarian Crisis and Health Care in Iran, the War in Syria, ISIL, Iran’s efforts to Broker Peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, Irish-Iranian relations and more in the final installment, Part III, on Thursday, 29 October 2020 at: diplomat.ie
Diplomatic Editor Miceál O’Hurley discusses the interview series with the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Masoud Eslami and his role in reporting on the Diplomatic Corps and international affairs.