Today, we are joined by Dr. Franklin Lamb, a well-known progressive international lawyer and researcher with the University of Beirut. Lamb is a former Assistant Counsel of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and Professor of International Law at Northwestern College of Law, Portland, Oregon. He is currently based in Beirut and Damascus. He is also the director of Americans Concerned for Middle East Peace, Washington D.C.-Beirut.
By: Kourosh Ziabari
It’s less than 10 days that the Iranian New Year has started. People across the country are celebrating the arrival of spring and the commencement of New Year. The past year has been a very difficult and tough year for the Iranian nation. The United States and its European allies, under the guise of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, imposed a set of harsh and backbreaking sanctions on Iran. The sanctions were decried by conscientious and independent thinkers, scholars, authors and politicians. However, the U.S. and its European partners callously defied the international calls to lift the sanctions and mitigate the pains of the Iranian people.
The Iranian people, however, withstood the pressures and learned how to manage their life in the face of the economic warfare being unleashed on them by the West. In order to discuss the different aspects of the anti-Iran sanctions and their legal basis, Iran Review has started to do interviews with world-renowned political commentators, university professors, writers and scholars who are willing to present their opinions on the sanctions.
What follows is the text of our interview with Dr. Franklin Lamb who has weighed in on the legal aspects of the anti-Iran sanctions, their accordance with the international law and the legal procedures to lift them. Parts of the interview were conducted when Dr. Lamb was in Iran last year, and the rest was done when he returned to Beirut, where he is based.
Q: Over the past years, the U.S. officials have been repeatedly claiming that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and that it should be prevented from acquiring them. However, the sanctions imposed on Iran on this basis now have nothing to do with nuclear disarmament and simply target the daily life of the ordinary Iranian citizens through banning medicine, foodstuff and consumer goods. What does the international law say in this regard?
A: I think that’s absolutely right. Mr. Stephen Cohen is the head of the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control which is the most active agency of the United States government that creates, applies, monitors and follows up on the sanctions. So the sanctions which have been imposed on Iran over the past years, but throughout the history, come out of that office at the Treasury Department. There are others, but that’s the main source. In fact the OFAC has existed since 1812, so we have a history of sanctions, not only on Iran but in the international level. He [Stephen Cohen] advocated economic sanctions as an alternative to a hot war. In those days, it was considered a peaceful idea and that carries forward even the restrictions which were applied on the Islamic Republic in a serious way first in 1979 after the revolution, and as you know, they recently increased and became layer upon layer and most recently, two days ago, Steve Cohen again announced yet another regime of sanctions which has targeted the whole media network, the IRIB, and also the so-called cyber-police that monitors internet. That’s the latest set of sanction. The political motives [of the sanctions] are pretty complicated but in a sense predictable.
Our interest is ending the sanctions. An international team of lawyers which has been based in Syria for the last three months, including some names which you may know such as Francis Boyle, is examining the international legal aspect of the sanctions. It’s a long, long story short; a complicated story short. The sanctions are overwhelmingly illegal from every international humanitarian law concept you can come up with; the rights of children, rights of women, proportionality, collective punishment, Geneva Conventions, etc. You can’t target a civilian population. Particularly, you cannot target a civilian population for political reasons in that way: regime change! That’s exactly what’s going on here, and exactly what’s going on in Syria. So, from the point of view of international law, the sanctions are absolutely illegal, morally indefensible, and arguably not even effective politically. We don’t care about political issues, we care about law. So our project is to get the sanctions lifted on the basis of law which we can talk about more in details if you want. But the hypocrisy and fallacy of the recent sanctions were reminded and reiterated by the outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton when she announced that she hoped the Iranian people will get the message. That is as much a confession to a criminal act and as former lawyer who had gone to a law school she had to know it better that she confirmed that her government is involved in criminality. She admits the targeting of a civilian population, and she hopes that they get the message. She hopes that there are some riots over the rise of the price of automobiles and consumer goods, and the argument is that they might break with the government and push the clerics out. That’s what they talk about, but it’s nonsense as we know; sanctions don’t work that way. In Syria where I spent three months, it was very clear that the government there, whatever you think of it, is using this argument against the opposition and their allies and Americans, and they’re actually gaining support, I’ll submit, among the population on this issue. Obviously, there’s a lot of evidence of riots in this country over that, and in certain cases, such as chicken fees, the government steps in and tries, through subsidies and grants, to reduce the effect of those sanctions. I’m here to study that problem. I need to know more about that. Maybe you can help me with that.
You mentioned the legal aspects [of the sanctions]. You need two things, of course. You need the law on their side, and both Iran and Syria have the law overwhelmingly on their side; and then you need the facts. You got to give the facts. That’s why I’m digging down here, and that’s the reason I’m here. Some people ask, isn’t the international law a politicized Western tool? No, it’s not! 95% of international law works great; EKO, air transport, telecommunications, thousands of bilateral treaties, maritime, aviation, etc. all of these things works great. 5% of the time, it’s a problem. Because that’s when the international law becomes politicized and used by those who have the political, military power to use it for their own so-called national interests and self-interests. For example, the United Nations had become really politicized at the Security Council. 72 resolutions on behalf of Israel were vetoed by the Americans. It’s a matter of fact. I don’t say it because I’m here in Iran. So, there are two possibilities for legally putting the sanctions aside. One is that you go to a U.S. federal district court in the District of Columbia. Then you bring a class action lawsuit on behalf of the Americans who are Iranians. Iranian-Americans are considered as much American as the others. You’ll be asked whether you have been paid the compensatory and punitive damages done by the sanctions, and your family and relatives who happen to live here or there. Then you’ll have over 20 plaintiffs. There will be countless numbers of your family members and friends who are victimized by the sanctions. When you do that, you go the court and immediately file a motion. And what’s the motion? You say that, your honors, my clients are suffering and we need interim measures of protection. What’s that? That’s a provision involved in the international law and municipal law, meaning domestic law, where the court grants interim relief which is in this case the lifting of the sanctions. Lifting the sanctions until when? Until the court makes the final determination. For how long will the freeze last? We don’t know; maybe two years or more. You see they will grant this, and in this case it is the duty of the Iranians and the Syrians to freeze the sanctions. It makes it more and more politically difficult for the U.S. government and its allies to bring the sanctions back. And why does the court do that? As a practical matter, the court does it when the law is on the side of the plaintiff, and in this case, it’s overwhelmingly on the side of the plaintiffs.
Q: While the process of passing on Iran’s nuclear dossier to the Security Council was illegal, do the resolutions issued on this basis have a legal warranty?
A: Yes they do. Even if the ancillary and preliminary process was arguably flawed, as your question assumes, the alleged defect (s) must be timely challenged at the level of the UN Security Council. The reason is that when the United Nations was founded following World War II, the powers who agreed to it established the Security Council as the final arbiter of international issues, for “the maintenance of International Peace and Security.” In short, this means that what the Security Council decides becomes instant binding International Law. This may not always be just but UN Security Council Resolutions are binding and enforceable under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter
Q: Don’t you think that focusing the sanctions on basic staples and goods, especially medicine, is tantamount to a continued and systematic violation of the human rights?
A: Absolutely. Binding international law on the subject of targeting civilian populations, whether by armed force or economic sanctions constitute crimes against humanity and are in violation of the norms of international humanitarian law as evidenced by the Geneva Conventions as well as the massive body of settled conventional and customary international law. The U.S.-led sanctions, in their predictable effects, target the civilian population of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The sanctions are also illegal under American law which outlaws the targeting civilian populations.
Q: It seems that the sanctions are not simply aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program; rather, the main objective of the sanctions is seemingly to create social unrest in Iran which can finally lead to a regime change. So, what’s the message which the sanctions impart? Diplomacy or conspiracy?
A: The message from Washington is regime change as part of the strategic imperative, from the viewpoint of the Obama Administration, seeking a restoration of American hegemony project in the Middle East which has suffered serious setbacks following a series of challenges and setbacks from Iraq and Afghanistan to Egypt and Syria. Ultimately, the sanctions are designed to thwart the rise of any Resistance power in the region that would challenge American domination and undermine Israeli hegemony. Another message of the sanctions is to the domestic audience, i.e. to build support from the American public, for example, via the sanctions by demonstrating that there must be something dangerous about the governments and countries being targeted by U.S. sanctions and also it makes it easier to build support among the public for harsher measures against “perceived enemies of America” including the “all options on the table” rhetoric.
Q: Would you please touch upon the legal aspect of unilateral sanctions, not necessarily those which are imposed against Iran, as stipulated by the documents of the United Nations? Can the unilateral sanctions be categorized as part of the punitive measures foreseen in the Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter?
A: Unilateral sanctions can be categorized as part of the punitive measures foreseen in Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter but only if supported by an agreed to United Nations Security Council Resolution. This has been the case with some of the sanctions initiated by the American government and its allies and approved by the fifteen member state Security Council in recent years.
However, unless the Security Council passes, by a majority vote of its 15 members, a UNSC Resolution relating to the application of sanctions the Resolution is not binding on member states. Any of the five powers, China, France, America, Russia or the United Kingdom can veto any UN Security Council Resolution which act immediately renders it null and void.
Q: Along with the expansion of sanctions, the resistance of the Iranian nation has increased, as well. Why haven’t the sanctions had the effects the West desires, whether in the political or social level?
A: The resistance of the Iranian people and the government of the Islamic Republic reflect the widespread international rejection of acts that clearly have the affect of harming a civilian population. Big powers like the U.S. have used economic sanctions for centuries in order to cause a population to pressure its government. America’s record since the War of 1812 against the British and more than 53 years of sanctions targeting the civilian population of Cuba, and those against China, Vietnam and Iraq are only a few examples.
Past and current civilian targeting sanctions fail on the political and social level because civilian populations blame those who impose the sanctions and not their own governments who, in the case of Iran and Syria for example, work with their societies to lessen the impact of these hostile and foreign imposed sanctions. Civilian populations have consistently understood the motives of the outside-imposed sanctions and have tended to rally alongside their government to defeat them. For these reasons, the history of sanction failure is likely to be repeated in the future.
Q: It seems that the most important objective which Israel seeks through issuing repeated war threats against Iran is to persuade the U.S. and EU to intensify the sanctions against Iran. How much accurate is this analysis in your view?
A: I think this is indeed part of the equation. For domestic political reasons which include keeping its population focused, even obsessed, with the claimed danger from Iran, it detracts from growing domestic problems within Israeli society. These include, among many others, growing domestic doubts about Zionism, growing international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, expanding global condemnation of Zionist crimes against humanity, the increased international rejection of the Zionist occupation of Palestine.