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Comment | Threats and Sanctions: The Achilles' Heel of a Potential Atom Accord

by REZA NASRI

04 Jun 2012 20:38Comments

How Article 52 of the Vienna Convention hangs over the nuclear talks.

Reza Nasri is an international lawyer and a Ph.D. candidate in international law, conducting research on Charter law and armed conflict at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
804481_orig.jpg [ comment ] Constant threats of military action, paired with harsh economic sanctions, are admittedly meant to coerce Iran into concluding an agreement with the P5+1 on its nuclear program. Covert operations, such as the assassination of top Iranian scientists and the spate of massive cyberattacks that have targeted the country's civilian energy sector, also seem to be part of a broader policy whose aim is to diminish Iran's position at the negotiation table.

But sadly, it seems that public opinion has been so deeply affected by the sensationalism and the false sense of urgency that surround this "policy" that even attentive observers often fail to see its serious legal and moral defects. Pundits and politicians have been speaking of these "plausible" threats and "crippling" measures so often and so unscrupulously that one tends to forget that employing such coercive tactics against a negotiating party is not only ethically questionable but has also its own legal ramifications.

Indeed, from the lens of modern international law, an agreement that is obtained through coercion is generally considered invalid. Article 52 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties -- which codifies some of the most fundamental bedrocks of the laws among nations -- is very clear on the subject: It specifically renders "void any treaty which has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations."

This fundamental rule of law arises from the dictum ex iniuria ius non oritur, "no right arises out of injustice," which proclaims that international agreements ought to be based on notions of consent, fairness, and equity, in exclusion of threats and coercion. Rules like this were supposed to distinguish post-Charter modern international relations from the unbridled colonialist-minded world of the 19th century, which, in passing, produced two devastating wars that brought untold sorrow to mankind. It's puzzling, then, to see that Western powers still perceive negotiations with a consequential power like Iran -- on a dossier pertaining to an issue as crucial as nuclear nonproliferation -- as undeserving of the wisdom and safeguards that this legal principle affords.

Instead, world powers are again poised to "solve" an international crisis through an "agreement" that is essentially predicated on intimidation, illegal threats of military action, unilateral "crippling" sanctions, sabotage, and extrajudicial killings of Iran's brightest minds -- that is, in 19th-century style.

But injustice and imprudence are not the only flaws of an agreement concluded through coercion. Its major defect is coercion's legal impact on its sustainability: As stated above, an agreement that is forced upon a sovereign state breaches the provision of Article 52 of the Vienna Convention and as such contains in itself the legal seeds of its own dissolution. This means that even if coercive tactics eventually succeed at overcoming Iran's resolve and imposing a slanted "agreement" on it, such an agreement could be invalidated on very solid legal grounds.

At a time of its choosing, Iran could very well invoke Article 52 to void any eventual arrangement with the P5+1 if sanctions are not lifted and threats not retracted -- either explicitly or effectively through the moderation of rhetoric and normalization of the now hostile environment -- prior to the execution of the arrangement's terms.

In sum, the threats and sanctions that are now considered by some as "strategic leverage" for the P5+1 could very well become the Achilles' heel of any future agreement concluded under conditions like those at present. So it seems best to do away with them while it's not too late and engage in a serious process that conforms more closely to universal legal and moral principles, principles that would be bound to produce much more sustainable results.

Any opinions expressed are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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