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.

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