Is a blockade of Iran an “act of war?”

MJ Rosenberg, just alerted me to his latest post in TPM Cafe. The headline:”169 House Members (77 Dems) Push For WAR NOW with Iran.”

Alarming. But is it alarmist?

MJ, an American hero (I mean that!), is concerned about House Resolution 362 and S. Res. 580. I described the House bill in my previous post, as part of an effort to show that AIPAC does not appear to be pressing for an attack on Iran. Maybe it is, but I did not think the evidence could be found in those bills or in the policy conference that promoted them. MJ, apparently, disagrees. He asserts:

The bill’s “action clause” would put us at war with Iran by immediately imposing a blockade.

The resolution cleverly states that “nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran” assuming, apparently correctly, that potential co-sponsors won’t know that a blockade is an act of war.

Here is the heart of the bill:

Congress hereby “demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program….”

Note: The blockade described in the bill is identical to the one JFK imposed on Cuba in 1962 which almost plunged the world into nuclear war. The huge difference is that we knew the Soviet Union had installed missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from Miami, and was about to equip them with nuclear war heads. A rather immense difference from the Iran situation today.

Is imposing a blockade “an act of war?” I’ve tried to figure out whether that equation holds up in international law. The only useful comment I’ve uncovered comes from a piece by Dale Russakof in the Washington Post (8/20/1990) on Bush 41’s confrontation with Iraq. (You can only read the article, as far as I can tell, if you are a Highbeam subscriber):

Barry Carter, professor of international law at Georgetown University Law Center, who is not involved in the current crisis and therefore speaks untortured English, said that the word, blockade, while traditionally associated with war, has no “legally significant meaning different from quarantine, interdiction or the like…It’s the act of stopping a ship that is a hostile act, whether you call it quarantine, blockade or interdiction.”

In other words, if the U.S. actively stops a tanker from carrying petroleum to Iran, that is an act of war. Calling for a blockade is not.

Is that splitting hairs? Did I let AIPAC off too easy? Perhaps. MJ doesn’t mention AIPAC, but doesn’t need to. Some claim AIPAC was directly responsible for the resolutions. Whether or not that is true, the bills are clearly something they have done more than endorse: they sent thousands of lobbyists to the Hill to push for the bills the day after their recent extravaganza at the DC Convention Center.

I have written, in no uncertain terms, that the organized American Jewish community needs to find the courage to publicly rebuke the pre-emptive war fetishists in its midst. Even if the U.S., Israel, Iran’s neighbors and Europe find a nuclear-armed Iran to be an intolerable risk –and that is arguable– it would be senseless to bomb its nuclear facilities unless and until every conceivable diplomatic option is attempted. It is also foolish for American policy to rely completely on sticks and offer no real carrots. MJ has written the same thing.

But that doesn’t change my view that, at least in this case, AIPAC and its Congressional allies stopped well short of overt warmongering. What is it that I’m missing here? In these non-binding resolutions, they tried to ratchet up the economic and political pressure. That’s a far cry from adapting the mentality of Richard Perle and Norman Podhoretz others who appear to relish the idea of one last firestorm before Bush and Cheney leave.

19 thoughts on “Is a blockade of Iran an “act of war?”

  1. I don’t know what AIPAC does on the hill, or e-mail campaigns. The only e-mails that I get on Israel are from BritZedek, and occassionally from Betselem.

    Its been speculated ad nauseum that AIPAC, Bush/Cheney, are attempting to orchestrate an incident justifying war with Iran.

    Even the recent Israeli naval exercise in the Mediterranean that was reported to be a warning to Iran would have been accurately presented as a preamble or staging of aggression on Iran most prominently if conducted in the Arabian Sea or Indian Ocean.

    A blockade is an act of war. It was in 1967 when Egypt blockaded Israel in the Gulf of Aqaba. (The gamut of those rationalizing that Israel initiated the 67 war, ignore that fact.)

    On consequence of the “norm” of unilateral regime change by the US, is of the slippery slope, that we’ve FORGOTTEN what is a unilateral act of war.

    One important effort of an Obama presidency is the restoration of principles of international law and recognition of the implications of unilateral use of force as norm.

    So long as Iran allows international inspectors to candidly review its nuclear program, Iran is not in violation of international law per the non-proliferation treaty.

    Its an open question if it is in fact complying with international law. And, it is an open question if it is in Israel’s, US’s, or the human interest to forcefully suppress Iran’s apparent military ambitions.

    It is flexing its military muscle. I remember reading that Iran similarly has recently conducted military exercises including testing of missiles technology exceeding the range to Israel. (I don’t have a citation.)

    It is a fantasy to regard Iran as NOT actively aggressing on Israel, as NOT actively seeking regime-change in Israel. (Meaning the cessation of Israel as Zionist, not a change in party, and not a choice by Israelis to adopt a liberal and non-aggressive Zionism.)

  2. A boycott of Iran is not an act of war.

    A boycott by a single nation, and a blockade are different actions.

  3. I think MJ Rosenberg is right.

    It calls for “imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program….”

    So anything or anyone that leaves Iran will get inspected by the Americans, whenever the Americans feel like it? That means the Americans will claim the right to hop on board Iranian ships?

    Maybe that wouldn’t be an “act of war,” technically. I don’t know one way or the other. But it wouldn’t be a passive boycott enforced on American or European shores. It would be enforced by American naval officers and marines aggressiely patrolling Iranian waters…If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, etc. etc.

    Why are you bending over backwards to defend these putzes, Dan?

  4. According to the IAEA, Iran is doing NOTHING illegal. Iran’s nuclear program started under the Shah, with the participation of the US, because it makes economic sense for everyone. Iran has offered to place limits on its nuclear program beyond its legal obligations, to further ensure that it cannot be used to make bombs. The US has rejected this totally. The conclusion: this conflict is not about “Iranian nukes” — it is about Israel trying to dominate the region and keeping Iran down. See more at

  5. Hass,
    When was the last time Iran submitted to IAEA review? I understood that at their last request, Iran refused to candidly disclose the details of their program.

    So, that would be something illegal, not “nothing”.

    I know of no example of Iran agreeing to place limits on their nuclear program. I understood that Iran had rejected EVERY Russian and French proposal.

    Iran could recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations. That would deflect the fights of big fish in the small pond.

  6. What do you all PROPOSE relative to Iran? For the US, for Israel.

    Iran DOES fund, arm, train proxy armies on Israel’s borders.

    Israel in contrast is 900 miles away from Iran.

  7. Actually, Richard Witty, you apparently don’t know much at all about Iran’s nuclear program. First of all, the latest IAEA report specifically stated that Iran has allowed the required inspections, including 14 “surprise visits”. Nothing “illegal” there. In fact, Iran has been more cooperative with the IAEA than other countries operating the same enrichment plants such as Brazil and Argentina.

    And note that Iran offered to open Iran’s enrichment program to foreign participation, making it a multinational program, to ensure that the material can’t be used secretly to make bombs. This is a solution that others, including US experts (Pickering, Luers, Walsh at MIT) and the IAEA itself (Pellaud Committee) have endorsed.

    Read more:

  8. Hass,

    Let’s say you are correct about Iran’s lack of culpability. It’s a big leap from that conclusion to your pronouncement that “this conflict is not about `Iranian nukes’ — it is about Israel trying to dominate the region and keeping Iran down.”

    1) Are you claiming that the Israelis are lying and do not believe Iran intends to develop nukes, and are using it as a pretext to “dominate the region?” Are you claiming the U.S. is cooperating in that lie? What about the EU? What about Sarkozy? Are they in on the lie as well? Why would they be concerned about Iranian nukes? They aren’t especially interested in perpetuating Israeli domination.

    2) There are, I would say, about 50 people in the world qualified to judge whether Iran is serious about developing nuclear weapons. I am not one of them. Are you? You are essentially taking a leap of faith that information that runs counter to conventional wisdom is correct, and anything American or Israeli officials say is incorrect. The truth is almost always in the gray area.

    3) What about Richard Witty’s point about Iran’s funding of Hizbollah and Hamas (I would add Islamic Jihad)? You may believe Israel is responsible for the birth of these groups, but don’t Israelis have some cause for alarm that Iran is helping them?. And if Israel does have cause for alarm, would you still say Iran has done “nothing wrong?”

  9. The neocons are a little bit ahead of you in their strategic thinking. If we initiate a stoppage of petroleum to the country of Iran, it matters not one iota whether it is considered an act of war. If Iran is not getting petroleum their economy will go into an immediate recession. In a few weeks of a blockade their petroleum-run army will be inoperable.

    They have to run the blockade.

    In which case Cheney will have his excuse and the neocons will get their war. All of this counting of angels on the head of a pin is exactly the genius of the neocons. They know that the average person does not fully understand the importance of petroleum and thus they will tangled in legalistic arguments like the one on this forum.

    A reasonable person is at a considerable disadvantage when dealing with evil. You think that the neocons think like you do— They don’t!

  10. It is an irony that the nation with the third largest petroleum reserves would be dependant on externally refined petroleum products.

    Is it in fact?

  11. In short Yes Iran needs to have exports of petroleum to survive! That is the brilliance of the neocons. They know that 90% of Americans believe that Iran is swimming in petroleum. Therefore, America doesn’t understand the implication of cutting off petroleum.

    I hate to say that history repeats itself because it is such an overused phrase but Dean Acheson cut off shipments of oil to Japan shortly before Pearl Harbor.

    The strategists who studied it knew that this would make the invasion of the Dutch East Indies inevitable. And if they were to invade these islands they would have to neutralize the American fleet. Viola.

    America starts an economic war on Japan and is later attacked as expected. Wolfowitz, Perle, Woolsey, Krystal have read their history. They are laughing their butts off right now. They know the exact implications of a blockade.

    Like Neville Chamberlain we have no idea who were are dealing with. These neocons are always two steps ahead of everyone else.

  12. “””Like Neville Chamberlain we have no idea who were are dealing with”””

    Agreed. Ahmadinejad says that the Holocaust didn’t happen and that the Moslems will destroy Israel.

    And Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

    Indeed, like Chamberlain some of us have no idea of the modern-day Iranian/12th-Imam Nazis we are dealing with…

  13. “””this conflict is not about “Iranian nukes” — it is about Israel trying to dominate the region and keeping Iran down.”””

    And how does Iran’s enriching uranium end alleged Israeli domination of the region?

    What is it that you believe Iran will do with its enriched uranium that will end Israeli domination?

  14. This bill is calling for an act of war. No, it is not the act of war itself, but that should be obvious. It will make it easier for the cheney/bush/aipac push for military confrontation with Iran. We need to challenge this resolution. I am glad Mr. Rosenberg is speaking out, and speaking up. Take the time to check this out, and send a message to your congresspeople.

    There is also more here, including full text of resolution and list of cosponsors:

    Keep up the struggle for peace.

  15. Have you ever looked at a map of the Middle East. Iran is surrounded by U.S. bases in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan. Israel never signed the Non-Proliferation treaty and they have over 100 nuclear missiles.

    Other close neighbors have nuclear missiles including Pakistan, Russia, and China.

    You are going to trot out that tired neocon dog of Ahmedinejad is Hitler. He’s not even in control of the country.

    If Iran develops a Nuclear missile you are saying they are going to sacrifice every man woman and child in their country in order to take out Tel Aviv. The U.S. and Israel would turn all of Iran into a parking lot.

    Bibi Netanyahu started that tired campaign and it’s been picked up by ignorant people everywhere but it makes zero sense on so many different levels.

    The aggressors are the neocons in the state department and the Pentagon that said “Anyone can go to Baghdad, Real men go to Tehran.”

  16. “””you are going to trot out that tired neocon dog of Ahmedinejad is Hitler.”””

    First of all, I like dogs. I walk them every day. If you don’t like dogs that is your problem.

    Anyway, I was responding to the previous poster’s claim that “Like Neville Chamberlain we have no idea who were are dealing with. These neocons…”

    If it’s okay to compare some Americans to Nazis then it’s okay to compare the Iranian Holocaust-denier Ahmadinejad to the Nazis as well.

  17. Neoconned,

    I agree with those who say that it might be necessary for everyone to learn to live with a nuclear armed Iran,if in fact it is pursuing those weapons. But that doesn’t mean it is a good option. So please tell me if the following questions are trumped up by neo con propagandists:

    1) Why is the EU so concerned about the nuclearization of Iran? Why is Sarkozy concerned? Are they just relishing the idea of attacking Iran?

    2) Some say the main threat will not be to Israel. It is Iran’s neighbors who are worried. No one in Egypt or Jordan or Turkey is losing sleep because they are afraid Israel will use nuclear weapons. Nor are they worried about the other countries you mention. But there is fear of an Iran that is controlled by mullahs and Revolutionary Guards developing nuclear weapons. Among other things, the nuclear umbrella will give Iran an enhanced ability to be even more adventurist in the region than it is already….So, are the people who are worried about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East wrong? Have they been conned as well?

    3) Then, picking up on Dan’s comment, there is the matter of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah. The neo cons did not invent them (ok, you could say Israel invented them but that’s almost ancient history now). If Ahmedinejad is not Hitler, as you say, don’t you think Israel has a right to be concerned that Iran is funding violent proxies on Israel’s perimeter? Of course that doesn’t justify a military attack on Iran and has little to do with the nuclear weapons issue, but your remarks imply that the entire threat from Iran is a concoction of Feith and Wurmser and Cheney.

    So, educate me.

  18. The fear that the US or Israel will attack Iran is real.

    I wish that that fear wouldn’t spawn so much wishful thinking.

    Nuclear weapons are the bar-mitzvah for aspiring world powers. “Now I am a man.”

    Being thirteen does not make one a man. Work, commitment to others, a willingness to compromise one’s pride, a recognition of the humanity of the other.

  19. Why would anyone want to oppose Nuclear Proliferation?

    Not only is it a violation of another nation’s right to develop

    It is also futile. Technology spreads. This is a historical fact.
    This is not something to fear. This is progress.

    Nuclear proliferation will bring a lasting and universal peace. Here’s how..

    Mutually assured destruction kept the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union for decades. Mutally assured destruction makes war obsolete. It creates peace by making war

    Just imagine how much safer and peaceful our world will be once everyone who wants an atomic bomb has one.

    When any conflict anywhere on Earth can turn into a nuclear inferno,, people will turn to peace

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