Building a More Peaceful World: Strikes in Syria, Nuclear Disarmament, and Protest
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
Article by Ishvaku Vashishtha,
On the morning of Friday, February 26, the United States carried out airstrikes in Syria. While the Pentagon reported that the strikes killed one fighter and wounded two others in an Iranian-backed militia, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in London, reported that the strike actually killed at least 22 fighters. President Biden authorized the airstrikes in response to a rocket attack on the airport in Erbil, in Northern Iraq, that occurred on February 15. Saraya Awliya al-Dam, the militant group which claimed responsibility for the attack, said that it was targeting the “American occupation in Iraq.”
It is unclear whether the United States targeted Saraya Awliya al-Dam with the strike; rather, the Pentagon simply stated that “the strikes destroyed multiple facilities located at a border control point used by a number of Iranian backed militant groups, including Kait’ib Hezbollah and Kait’ib Sayyid al Shuhada.” While John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, further asserted that the retaliatory American airstrikes were meant to punish the perpetrators of the attack and not to escalate conflict with Iran, it is unclear whether or not Saraya Awliya al-Dam is backed by Iran or connected to the organizations that utilize the facilities the airstrikes targeted. The Pentagon justified the airstrikes by saying that they were launched “in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel.” However, this justification is weak under international law. While the Biden Administration asserted that the strikes were pursuant to the inherent right of self-defense as reflected in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, it is unlawful to use armed force, as the United States did, on the territory of another state (Syria) in the absence of an ongoing or imminent armed attack by a non-state actor.
Iran Nuclear Deal
While the Pentagon suggested that its aim was not to escalate hostilities with Iran, the airstrikes might have contributed to rising tensions between Iran and the United States. Earlier in February, the Biden administration took a significant step forward in beginning informal negotiations with Tehran, marking America’s first diplomatic outreach to the country in more than four years and a stark shift from the Trump administration’s failed Iran policy. However, Iran’s leadership affirmatively rejected the invitation last weekend following the airstrikes.
This potentially jeopardizes one of Biden’s foreign policy priorities: returning to the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As Vali Nasr notes, the Trump Administration’s approach to US-Iran relations applied maximum pressure and garnered minimal benefit, serving as an overall foreign policy failure. Trump’s disruptive strategy was an effort to catalyze regime change: his tactics alienated everyday Iranians and denied Iranians access to medicine and pharmaceutical supplies amidst a global pandemic. In fact, one of the Trump administration’s final acts was sanctioning an Iranian pharmaceutical company that is developing a COVID-19 vaccine, despite the tremendously unequal distribution of the vaccine.
Unfortunately for the Biden Administration, reversal of the damage may prove to be a difficult task, and the recently escalated tension is unlikely to help actuate a détente. It is critical to understand that the Obama Administration did not intend for the JCPOA to be an endpoint for negotiations between Iran and the United States. Rather, the agreement was meant to be a starting point that would help address a specific concern: Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Though it was successful in curbing that program, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and heighten sanctions on Iran aggravated the country’s leaders, which led them to expand their uranium enrichment activities. Time is of the essence, as Tehran has indicated a desire to return to the pre-Trump status quo in which Washington would lift the sanctions that were imposed by the Trump administration. However, before doing so, Washington wants Tehran to showcase compliance with the tenets of the JCPOA by reversing its uranium enrichment.
Failure to compromise from both sides could be catastrophic. New intelligence suggests that Iran may be only 2 years away from producing a nuclear weapon. Iran’s adopted “strategic patience” has a time limit. If Biden delays rejoining the Iran deal for too long, Iran might continue to accelerate its nuclear weapons program–a move that could put the United States and Iran on a path to war.
Ultimately, if the goal is to maintain peace, failure is avoidable. However, if the Biden administration continues to cross international law lines, failure grows certain.
The Underlying Goal: Abolition of Nuclear Weapons
While Biden’s short term goal of returning to the JCPOA is necessary in building a more peaceful world, the agreement alone is insufficient. The overarching goal of the JCPOA was to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, ostensibly to avert the looming, seemingly inevitable possibility of a nuclear war. But how long can the United States avoid the possibility that the weapons of mass destruction it created should not exist? Nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to humanity. According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, less than one percent of the nuclear weapons in the world could disrupt the climate and threaten as many as two billion people with starvation in a nuclear famine. The potential harm from the entirety of nuclear weapons that already exist is an unfathomable horror.
Eventually, the United States must question why its concern about other countries gaining nuclear capabilities, and the fear attached to the potential for nuclear war and its aftermath, does not extend to its own possession of such weapons. Notions of deterrence and “mutually assured destruction” are deeply flawed. After great concerns associated with former President Trump’s authority over the nuclear launch codes, Democrats are asking Biden to surrender his unilateral power to order nuclear warfare. While there is truth to recognizing that the leader of Iran is ill-equipped to maintain control over nuclear weapons, it is apparent that the President of the United States similarly lacks the requisite expertise. The underlying truth is that no one is truly capable of possessing such capabilities.
We ought to move towards the abolition of nuclear weapons. While the UN treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force this past January, neither did any of the nine countries that are nuclear powers, nor any nation that is part of NATO, supported it. This overwhelming lack of support renders the ban largely symbolic.
Protest as a Path Forward
The transition to nuclear abolition can be guided by domestic movements. As Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) notes, a mobilized civil society will be necessary in ensuring that the world can move towards universal nuclear disarmament. Protest can serve as a bridge between public perception and foreign policy. An intersectional approach connecting a war economy to persistent inequality and poverty may galvanize the American people to pressure political leaders to abolish nuclear weapons.
Ishvaku Vashishtha (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2023) is an Travaux Contributor. His interests include human rights law, international political economy, democratization, and economic justice. Ishvaku holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. Before law school, Ishvaku worked as a paralegal specialist for the United States Department of Justice, Antitrust Division and as an organizer for Elizabeth Warren's Presidential campaign. Currently, he is a student counselor with the Workers' Rights Clinic. He is conversationally fluent in Hindi.