Amid Israel-Iran Strikes, International Law is Eroding

Merkava Tank from Israel

Amid Israel-Iran Strikes, International Law is Eroding

Israel’s strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus last month set a worrying precedent.

 

Few international norms are as strongly upheld as the Vienna Conventions covering consular and diplomatic relations—a bedrock of international law outlining protections for foreign embassies and their staff. Yet, as the last seven months of war between Israel and Hamas are proving, international norms are taking a beating, culminating in an Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic mission in Damascus on April 2.

In this context, the long-feared tit-for-tat exchange of fire between Israel and Iran throughout April highlights why foundational principles like that of protections for diplomatic premises are crucial for preventing a rapid descent into uncontrolled total war. Ultimately, the worst of enemies must respect the rules of the road as defined by international statutes and customary international law in this regard.

 

The Vienna Conventions

Two conventions define most of the rules for diplomatic posts and activities, including the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Articles defining security form the core of these conventions, ultimately ensuring diplomatic missions can conduct their work without fear of retaliation, either by arrest, disappearance, or death. Through these conventions, states ensure the safety of their citizens working in posts abroad—creating a self-reinforcing legal system as all states aim to provide security to their citizens, advancing state interests.

Article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations explicitly states that “The premises of the mission shall be inviolable.” Furthermore, “The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.” Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations reiterates these points.

Both conventions define “premises” as “the buildings or parts of buildings and the land ancillary thereto, irrespective of ownership, used for the purposes of the mission, including the residence of the head of the mission.” This point is crucial as some have tried to deny that the Damascus structure was a consulate or part of a diplomatic mission.

That said, neither article explicitly extends to third countries, leaving vague the question of Israel’s likely strikes on the Iranian consulate. As some legal experts argue, this is less a question of the Vienna Conventions and more of either the laws of war concerning civilian harm or basic questions of state sovereignty. Similarly, important questions about customary international law—a “general practice accepted as law”—are crucial here as these principles often shape future international conventions and are considered by many or most states to be legally binding, even if they are unwritten.

Sovereignty and War

Ultimately, questions of sovereignty and customary law are more applicable in this context, assuming the 1961 and 1963 Vienna conventions’ inviolable clauses do not apply in the case of Israel’s Damascus attack. Iran, Israel, and Syria each confirmed that no civilians were killed in the strikes—with Tehran’s admittance particularly important in this case. As such, questions of civilian harm are less applicable.

From a sovereignty perspective, however, there are reasonable grounds to question the strike’s legality. Embassy compounds are a state’s sovereign property in another country as outlined by the Vienna Conventions, offering a haven for a country’s nationals to reside. Striking such a compound is realistically only legal in a few instances, including if the two states are at war and the attacking state clears the civilian harm threshold.

Iran and Israel are not officially at war, although their interactions are hardly peaceful. Indeed, the countries have conducted a shadow war for years that has worsened over time, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and legal violations on each side. The shadow war offers a strong example of a “race to the bottom” effect in that when one party violates international law by conducting inter-state hostilities. The other seems to match or go beyond that action—using a rival’s violations of international law to justify their own. This back-and-forth matters as such violations do not justify additional violations.

Similarly, international customary law rejects attacks on diplomatic posts beyond first and second states to include third states and non-state actors, as displayed in rhetoric by most of the countries involved in the April 2 United Nations Security Council meeting on the Damascus attack. Governments simply do not view attacks on their diplomatic posts through the lens of a second or third-state problem as opposed to a violation of their sovereignty. This reinforces the sovereignty argument embedded as a core principle of the UN Charter—namely that states understand they cannot commit interstate violence, with some exceptions like self-defense.

To be sure, many would and do argue that Israel is defending itself against Iran and its proxies, which the pro-Israel camp typically views as one and the same. But just as this camp would discount the legal vagaries of third-party obligations under the Vienna conventions and customary international law, the same can be said about the military role of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its specialized Quds Force (QF) as they are arms of the Iranian government and typically are accredited to diplomatic posts as military advisors.

While there are exceptions to striking civilian structures on the sovereign land of a state in this regard—namely, if the target is planning military operations against the targeting state at the target location—proportionality and other elements of international law are still applicable. Still, this is likely Israel’s strongest case as it is clear the IRGC and QF are committed to the shadow war with them, supporting militias and other terrorist groups intent on fighting Israel and the United States.

Customary International Law and Political Considerations

Thus, while legal analyses are crucial for such strikes, they also carry inherent political questions, given gaps in international law and a refusal of both Israel and Iran to honor vast segments of it. Worse, both states and their supporters tend to manipulate international law to fit their narrative—often with major political considerations stemming from the domestic situations in their respective countries. 

In this context, customary international law—the norms states act on outside of written legal statutes—should be the compass. Understanding that most states would reject any attack from any state in any situation on their diplomatic posts and sovereign territory, it is difficult to justify the alleged Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus. The United States—the principal supporter of Israel—acknowledged this after the strike, with Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh stating that “we don’t support attacks on diplomatic facilities.”

Further, accepting that all forms of international law inherently protect the citizens of a given state, in turn, creating assurances for the citizens of all states, means that any deviation from the customary international law outlined above should be viewed as both politically toxic and dangerous for the safety of their nations.

As such, the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus should be broadly condemned. Indeed, the strike was likely a political signal to Iran, as opposed to self-defense, aimed at achieving deterrence. While the exchange of fire between the two countries did not lead to a much more serious conflict, the risks associated with the actions of both states fall squarely outside of the most basic conceptualizations of international law.

Indeed, Israel and Iran were essentially at war for a month for the first time, striking each other’s sovereign territory and risking the lives of millions. World leaders should have condemned both states for their irresponsible actions. Yet, unfortunately, geopolitical considerations and political interests continue to dominate the actions of world leaders as states protect their allies at the expense of international law and broader efforts to keep people safe. 

The world is worse off as a result.

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him on X: @langloisajl.

Image: Creative Commons.