On June 30, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address to the UN Security Council calling for an arms embargo on Iran to be extended was expected to dominate the international news agenda. However, Iran’s judiciary stole the morning’s headlines by issuing an arrest warrant for Donald Trump the day before.
Tehran prosecutor Ali Alqasimehr said on Monday that Trump, along with more than 30 others accused of involvement in the January 3 drone attack that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, face “murder and terrorism charges”. The prosecutor added that Tehran asked Interpol for help in detaining the US president.
The same day, the US special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, denounced the warrant as a “propaganda stunt” at a press conference in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. “Our assessment is that Interpol does not intervene and issue Red Notices that are based on a political nature,” Hook said alongside the Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs. Interpol soon issued a statement confirming that it would not be helping Iran to impose the warrant.
The timing of the arrest warrant caused many to believe that it was merely a tactic to divert attention from the US call for the extension of the arms embargo. Hook had previously claimed that lifting the arms embargo on Iran would turn Tehran “into the arms dealer of choice for rogue regimes and terrorist organisations”, dismissing Iran’s threats to retaliate as “mafia tactics”.
Under the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran nuclear deal, the arms embargo and the international travel ban on prominent members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are due to expire in October. Having withdrawn from the JCPOA in May 2018, the US is no longer in a position to change the JCPOA’s rules. Yet this has not stopped Washington from pressuring other members of the JCPOA to extend the embargo.
A symbolic yet practical move
Although it is doubtful Iran expected the warrant to lead to President Trump’s arrest, or even to constrain his movements, it was clearly designed to exceed the simple symbolism of its timing.
A move hatched by the hardline conservatives in Iran’s government, and about which President Hassan Rouhani’s moderates have said little, the issuing of the arrest warrant is expected to shine a spotlight on the arbitrary way the US uses – and some would say abuses – international law for its own benefit.
“The targeted killing of Mr Soleimani completely swept away the standard related to extraterritorial use of force by a state,” stated Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The US Department of Defense at first justified its targeting of General Soleimani as a deterrence against future Iranian attacks on Americans, and only later added that it was done in self-defence against an “imminent” threat. No further information was ever provided about the nature of this “imminent threat”. To Callamard, this was unacceptable, as “the test for so-called anticipatory self-defence is very narrow: it must be a necessity that is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation”. This standard, she stated in a tweet issued right after the killing, “is unlikely to be met”.
Iran warned the US after Soleimani’s death that it would not forget, and has, with this move, indicated not only to its own people, but also to the international community, that it is playing the long game, and that Soleimani’s extrajudicial killing remains a driver of policy.
The warrant, though a political rather than military manoeuvre, is part of a larger Iranian strategy to expose Washington’s injustice and dishonesty to the international community. In the case of Soleimani’s killing, the US not only changed its justification for the assassination after the fact, but it also offered no corroborating documentation to the international community.
What is more, though it lacks Interpol’s support, the warrant gives Iran the legal right to demand that countries in which Trump and the others named in it are travelling, issue extradition measures. It is highly unlikely that any country would attempt to extradite the US president to Iran, but the legal obligations brought by the warrant could prove an irritating distraction should it be used to interrupt the travels of targeted US officials in the future.
The warrant also draws attention to the arbitrary, and at times illegal, travel restrictions the US has imposed on countless Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Zarif addressed the UNSC after Pompeo on Tuesday and used this opportunity to counter his claims about Iran’s supposed “aggression”. But he was only able to do so because the coronavirus pandemic forced the meeting to be held virtually. If he attended the meeting at the UN headquarters in New York in person, he could have been apprehended on the grounds that his movements are circumscribed by targeted US sanctions – something he encountered at the last UN meeting he attended. This is despite the UN rules, established when it took up residence in New York City, that disallow the US from exerting domestic policy on UN activities.
Retribution by other means
In the slinging match between the two states that is being fought on every imaginable platform – Twitter, the territory of Iraq, international law, the narrow Straits of Hormuz – there are only two rules, which both follow rigorously: always attack, and do not cede the limelight for long. As the number of months before both administrations’ presidential elections dwindles, the US-Iran standoff has become a “dance macabre” to see who can damage the other the most without going to war.
The US hopes to destroy the JCPOA once and for all. The Iranians – along with all the other signatories (the EU, China, Russia) – are fighting to keep it alive.
Should the US prevail in extending the arms embargo beyond October, Iran has threatened to leave the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), triggering the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the region.
Should the US fail – and both China and Russia have stated they will veto any US action – Washington plans to engineer a snap-back of UN sanctions on Iran, a strategy designed not only to devastate the latter’s already reeling economy, but kill the JCPOA beyond any rescue by Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival in the upcoming presidential race. Iran meanwhile has stated that although it restarted its nuclear programme after the US left the deal, it can shut it down easily to comply with the JCPOA should a new US administration roll back the sanctions.
With such a busy and high-stakes agenda, there is every chance that there will be more vitriol, more manipulated facts, and more surprise moves by both parties as the scene plays out in the coming months.
In his speech following Pompeo’s at the virtual UNSC meeting on Tuesday, Zarif ridiculed a map of flight trajectories presented by the US secretary of state illustrating how the range of advanced aircraft Iran would likely buy could threaten Europe should the embargo be lifted. Yet as Henry Rome, a regional specialist at the Asia Group in New York points out, Iran is unlikely to go on a buying spree, and will “ensure the technology is being transferred domestically”.
Both the map, and the speech, might have been more entertaining, and the warrant more effective, were the risks of miscalculation, drawing the whole theatre into war, not so high.