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To Defend Ukraine, It Is Time to Strike Iran

NATO F-35
F-35 JSF from the Netherlands. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Vladimir Putin’s war crimes and the misadventures of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regime might have opened up an unusual opportunity for the U.S. Washington can take meaningful action simultaneously on two fronts – in the indirect defense of Ukraine, and in support of Iranian protesters.

Western nations are wary of Putin’s threats to use nuclear force, and of the possibility of a larger war. To their credit, they have nevertheless ramped up the provision of weapons and training facilities for Ukrainian soldiers. Indeed, the French just agreed to provide training in France, joining the British and others in similar efforts.

This low-key, incremental strategy of widening support for Ukraine has thus far helped empower Ukraine’s defenses while not generating a massive response, including a nuclear one, from Putin. At the same time, Putin’s wanton war crimes – the missile and drone assaults on purely civilian centers, mass killings in areas under occupation, and the like – have expanded the range of responses the West is entitled to take under international law.

Legitimate International Response

Through his widespread war crimes, Putin has in fact legally internationalized the war, providing the foundation for the West’s strategy. Thus, the political and military calculus morphs from a local, regional one, centered on Eastern Europe and perhaps NATO, to one that may invoke universal principles. In doing so, it can involve the entire community of nations that are bound to respond to humanitarian crimes.

The linchpins of a broad international response to Putin’s war crimes include the UN Charter itself; the 2005 Responsibility to Protect, or R2P; the Geneva Conventions on noncombatants in war; and customary international law.

The UN Charter’s Article 51 condemns any invasion of another nation’s territory. The Article provides for the collective defensive use of force, so long as that force is necessary and proportional to the initial assault. R2P calls for “appropriate collective action” by any and all nations to respond to grievous acts including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. On Oct. 12, the UN General Assembly lent its considerable weight, with 143 nations voting to condemn Russia’s actions. Only five nations voted against.

So we now have an internationalized war in which massive war crimes are being committed, effectively invoking the “necessity” of a response under Article 51. We have an international obligation to respond, which the UN Charter dictates should be done in a proportional manner.

Striking at the Source in Iran

Now enter Iran, purveyor of the weapons that are currently the most utilized tools in Putin’s war crimes against civilians, cities, electric grids, hospitals, and public playgrounds. To replace Russia’s dwindling arsenal, Iran is supplying a variety of missiles and drones. One of the most effective is the Shahed-136 kamikaze drone used to attack civilian targets in Kyiv. Reporting suggests even Iranian drone instructors have joined the fight in the Kherson area. The use of these weapons on civilian targets for psychological warfare, perhaps even by Iranian artillerymen themselves in this new, internationalized war, makes Iran an accomplice in Russia’s war crimes.

One “necessary and proportional” response would logically aim directly at Russia, attacking the Russian units and other sources of drone strikes and other missile barrages. These, however, are hard to locate and destroy.

Another permissible defensive reaction would be to attack the source of the death-dealing weapons: the Iranian assets, facilities, and supply chains responsible for the production and provision of these war-crimes tools. Legitimate targets range from manufacturing plants and logistics supply bases to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leadership responsible for the supply program. While the West’s go-to reprisal is economic sanctions – a measure also contemplated by R2P – that is an approach with a long timeline. It does not save Ukrainian lives today, and there comes a time when the policy response must be military.

Strikes by the international community would be proportional, targeting the manufacturing, logistics, and supply centers for Iranian weaponry. In this way, Putin’s military resources are degraded, but again the Western response is indirect. It is not targeted at Russia itself, but rather at Russia’s nefarious helpers and allies elsewhere around the globe. Although unlikely, Iran might be persuaded to stop supplying Russia with weapons.

A Dual Opportunity

Iran’s supply of war-crimes tools to Russia also affords policymakers a chance to be seen intervening against the humanitarian abuses of Iran’s clerical regime and supporting Iranians who are dying in the streets during protests. Public diplomacy can signal that while the strikes are on military supplies to Russia, they are in the larger sense driven by the thuggish nature of Khamenei’s regime. Such diplomacy can also make it known that harsher sanctions are coming, because the weapons supplies violate UN resolutions. Targeting the IRGC in particular would signal that those who engage in war crimes and harsh internal crackdowns are not immune to consequences.

A military strike to disable Iranian industries and logistics is a prescription with side effects. It would probably end negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and lead to increased Iranian troublemaking in the Middle East. But the nuclear talks seem to be failing in any case. The opportunity exists to strike a meaningful blow against the Russian arsenal, and targeted strikes on Iran would signal real Western support for the democracy protesters facing thuggish oppression from the IRGC, police, and basiji militias all alone.

Some will suggest we try diplomacy first, and persuade the Iranians to desist. But stringing out talks that are probably fated to fail will not protect Ukrainian civilians who live with the threat of attack right now. Although arguably a long shot, a military strike might even bring Iran around on the nuclear deal. It will show Tehran what might transpire if a deal is not reached and the U.S. and others decide it is too risky to let Iran develop a nuclear bomb.

Beyond Iran, other actors such as China and North Korea are providing ammunition, weapons, and even missiles to Russia. Here, given the realities of power, the Western response cannot be military. But in concert with R2P, it should involve economic sanctions targeted at the supply chains for myriad dual-use products and materials needed to manufacture missiles and other weaponry.

Richard Sindelar (bio), @FSOProf, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as Director of the Center for International Studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and international law, among others.

Written By

Richard Sindelar (bio), @FSOProf, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as Director of the Center for International Studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and international law, among others.

38 Comments

38 Comments

  1. TheWoodsman

    October 19, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    Striking targets in Iran with kinetic weapons would likely turn the population against the West, not enable or incite them to rise up against their government . Worse yet, Iran would use it as an opportunity to declare martial law and crack down even more brutally against protestors. Need to somehow stop the flow of advanced electronics into the country to build the drones.

    • Bruce

      October 22, 2022 at 3:20 pm

      Striking military targets won’t turn population of Iran against the West because that’s what they actually do – fighting with military/police

      • Paul Eccles

        October 24, 2022 at 2:26 am

        It obviously would. An outside power attacks your country. Who do you hate? Obviously not your government but the country that attacked you. There’s no better way to galvanize support for the state than to say “we’re under external attack!”

  2. Jim

    October 19, 2022 at 3:58 pm

    Gee, from the frying pan and into the fire.

    Neoconservatives… rub your hands with glee.

    With this proposal, can we get any closer to World War III?

    Can our military handle that assignment at this time?

    What would be the secondary events, the tertiary results?

    Does it cause a cascading of events beyond anybody’s control?

    This sounds like the supreme neoconservative scheme.

    And nobody knows where it goes… so typical.

    … don’t let children play with matches…

  3. cobo

    October 19, 2022 at 4:06 pm

    “Striking Iran” would be a huge mistake, just kicking the can down the road, again. Iran needs to be destroyed and broken and its assets seized. Consider this taking off the training wheels for a full out war against… others, too.

  4. Mate...

    October 19, 2022 at 4:08 pm

    You Americans are the biggest war mongers in modern history. Tell me again – why exactly is Iran being antagonized in the first place? The “hostage” crisis? Well according to the Iranian those “diplomats” were CIA agents. in 1953 your CIA toppled a democratically elected President (Operation AJAX), you supported a totalitarian Leader (Shah) and then supported Saddam against Iran. If anything, the Iranian people have every right to hate you americans. Everyone who does not bow their knees to your wishes is either being sanctioned, marked as enemy, threatened or there is war waged against them. This is one great strategy for our own downfall. Nobody likes a bully. The US hegemony is gone and you will decline as a state that turns even it’s own allies against yourself. Do you think blowing up Nordstream and sell the Europeans gas to much higher prices than the Russians did will make you any friends there?

  5. jon

    October 19, 2022 at 4:29 pm

    richard sindelar are you really that dumb? why would america want to start a war in iran, are you a war monger? is the us and other western nations doing the same thing as iran, “purveyor of the weapons that are currently the most utilized tools in ukraine’s war crimes against civilians.” war is bad no matter what side your on and civilians are the casualties

  6. Luis Espinal

    October 19, 2022 at 4:47 pm

    I am not a fan of the Iran regime, but these talks about striking Iran in terms of “opportunity” are dangerous nonsense.

    It’s the same mentality that brought us to the second Iraq war, or, in a way, the same mentality that made Putin believe he could waltz through Ukraine.

    Do not use this catastrophe as an excuse for adventurism. No NATO country or Japan or South Korea would be on board with this, so any “kinetic” move would be unilateral from our part (which is stupid.)

    Also, any talk of “supporting” the current protests simply give the Mullahs an excuse to delegitimize the opposition as “Great Satan’s puppets.”

    There’s an old saying: Divide and conquer. Or rather, focus on one problem at a time. Right now, that problem is the kinetic war in Ukraine.

    If we are to do something, let us built a block of sanctions against Iran supported by as many nations as possible, possibly with some carrots to counteract any benefits Iran perceives in supplying drones to Russia.

    Militarily, there are no strategic gains for Iran to get involved in the Ukrainian invasion, so that’s from where the West should look at the problem.

    Honestly, your thinking is damned dangerous, and it has the potential to endanger the war effort in Ukraine by opening more military fronts.

    After all, Iran has an insane capacity to absorb and inflict pain. They are an asymmetric power, and unlike Russia, it does not pretend to have a grand army.

    There’s no logic in trying to go where you are suggesting.

  7. Eric

    October 19, 2022 at 5:24 pm

    Iran is despicable for helping Russia. Even so, we should not attack Iran. Starting another war of choice is a stupid idea. There are surely better ways to deal with Iran. Giving Ukraine tons of air defense capabilities is probably the most reasonable military strategy and thankfully that strategy is being pursued, albeit later than I would personally like.

  8. Eric

    October 19, 2022 at 5:26 pm

    A “retired U.S. diplomat” is obviously not a very good diplomat if he’s calling for military options as the first resort.

  9. Rodavlas

    October 19, 2022 at 5:51 pm

    My god! Whats wrong with all these old guys who are warmongers? It seems that they want to leave ashes for the future generations.

  10. Thomas Brock

    October 19, 2022 at 6:01 pm

    Rhetoric. Oh yes and then stealing millions of barrels of Iran’s oil like you do in Iraq and Syria.

  11. Ben Leucking

    October 19, 2022 at 6:07 pm

    Nice speech, for a nutcase. Assuming that Sindelar isn’t volunteering to lead the attack himself, who precisely does he suggest carry this out, and with what weapons? It’s obvious that he didn’t learn much during his stints at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

  12. Mir Sekandari

    October 19, 2022 at 6:15 pm

    This article is nothing but Israeli propaganda. Isreal wants nothing more than the U.S. to kill and be killed for its security. These MAGA idiots are that stupid.

  13. US Army Vet

    October 19, 2022 at 6:28 pm

    How about bidding up and buying out all the drones from Iran and giving them to the Ukrainians, who can then deliver them to the Russians. Use the seized Russian assets to pay.

  14. magneto

    October 19, 2022 at 6:30 pm

    John Mearsheimer states that the USA was never a global hegemon, although I suppose Iranian militia in three adjacent countries, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, speaks of the Iranians trying to establish a regional hegemon.

    PS. The clue to a country pursuing hegemony, is for instance Russia invading Moldova, Georgia, Chechnya and Ukraine on two occasions in the last eight years.

    • Ferq

      October 24, 2022 at 3:48 pm

      US attacking countless countries, occupying two for years, and having hundreds of military bases = not a hegemon?

    • Sleuth

      October 24, 2022 at 4:58 pm

      You dumb

  15. Tamerlane

    October 19, 2022 at 8:45 pm

    Sindelar is insane and moronic. This is perhaps the worst idea I have ever heard. Striking a non-belligerent on behalf of another non-belligerent… And he is forgetting that Biden cannot “strike” another country without a congressional declaration of war, yet he asks us to literally attack a non-belligerent on behalf of Ukraine without a declaration of war!

    These long since discredited neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have lost their god damned mind.

  16. Tamerlane

    October 19, 2022 at 8:48 pm

    And here I thought the U.S. was assisting Ukraine because another country attacked a third party country… what will the U.S. exactly be doing if we attack a country not threatening or attacking us, if not replicating precisely what Russia is doing in Ukraine?

  17. Jose Garza

    October 19, 2022 at 9:11 pm

    I could appreciate the article, but in reading the comments I can agree that striking Iran would be a hugh mistake, and I detest Iran’s so called government.

  18. Arash P

    October 19, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    Yeah a nuclear power has started the war but we can’t attack it because it has nuclear weapons so lets attack a non-nuclear state instead!

    What a great idea! And you wonder why countries strife to get nuclear weapons!

  19. Jason

    October 19, 2022 at 10:00 pm

    The only problem is China is probably thinking the same thing and that would mean a third front. We need to deal with this one at a time. A better scenario would be to cut the head off the Russian snake.

  20. Sam

    October 20, 2022 at 12:42 am

    “The UN Charter’s Article 51 condemns any invasion of another nation’s territory.”

    1) You mean like Afghanistan and Iraq?

    2) No, it does not. Article 51 in fact states:

    “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defense shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

    Article 51 has actually been used to justify invasion. It was invoked by the Bush administration prior to Iraq, and was specifically invoked by Putin in 2022:

    “In this regard, in accordance with Article 51 of Part 7 of the UN Charter, with the approval of the Federation Council of Russia and in pursuance of the treaties of friendship and mutual assistance ratified by the Duma on February 22 with the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, I decided to launch a special military operation.”

    If there’s any provision of the UN Charter that says something like what claiming here, it’s Article 2(4):

    “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

    But I’m sure you already knew this, right? You weren’t just opining on the UN Charter without actually reading the thing, were you, Professor Sindelar?

  21. Bob Sacamano

    October 20, 2022 at 1:01 am

    And you realize this is what Russia did to Ukraine and preemptively attacked them, right? 100% NO that’s not what we should be doing when we are trying to deescalate the situation.. WTF is wrong with you old warmongers good lord just go fight yourself if you’re so excited to enter a new military conflict- which costs money the Republicans say we don’t have. I’m sure they’d find trillions for Iran though, they were salivating when we were wasting trillions in Iraq for a bunch of lies by the GOP Post-9/11. I swear to progresss past destroying ourselves, any country that has a leader or a group of people that are pushing for war should seriously push them out into the Arctic on a boat with no paddle and you guys have fun out there.

  22. Credible

    October 20, 2022 at 1:08 am

    I’m all for it though I think smuggling in arms to anti-regime supporters with maybe limited missile strikes of critical military and command infrastructure. No need to put almost any US lives on the line while also disabling Iran’s ability to look outward for a good while. Win-Win.

  23. pagar

    October 20, 2022 at 1:24 am

    US today has a global empire of bases and facilities that would have made Hitler or Tojo totally envious but US is never satisfied.

    Now US wants other countries that don’t host bases, depots, local hq for US militaries /US contractors and CIA offices to become wastelands.

    US is evil, just pure evil and countries like Iran must therefore acquire nuclear weapons to keep it at bay. Remember what’s happened to once prosperous Libya, for instance.

  24. CRS, DrPH

    October 20, 2022 at 2:11 am

    I absolutely agree. Iran is back on its heels, the Mullahs are in danger of a popular uprising, and destroying the infrastructure involved in making the drones would be relatively easy.

    Unlike the stupid “Shock & Awe” campaign of the Iraq war, these facilities can be precisely targeted.

    As far as North Korea goes, I’d figure out which ships are carrying the munitions and arrange for those to have a few accidents.

    • US President is no better than Ayatollah

      October 28, 2022 at 12:22 pm

      Munitions are built in-house you dumb warmongering American. Also if you had any clue about Iran’s geography, atmosphere and the kind of patriotism you wouldn’t find anywhere in the West, you’d realize what a delusional idiot you are. Iran is a mountainous country with the average elevation of 1,600 meters and many of the military infrastructure are hidden inside those mountains that took Israel 30 years to identify 20% of them!
      By comparison, Iraq is just a plain field, it’s almost 1/3 the size of Iran and their people aren’t half as united as Iranians and yet, your useless Army failed miserably lol.

  25. Nonono

    October 20, 2022 at 7:14 am

    This guys foreign policy class must be a breeze just answer WAR! to every question.

  26. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    October 20, 2022 at 11:50 am

    Because of their unholy need to fulfill Islamic prophecy concerning the 12th Iman, Iran absolutely will – has to – attack Israel and the West. When this occurs, the West will have solid reason to rid the world of this festering evil.
    Right now is not the time to attack Iran – there is more than enough peril in play elsewhere.

  27. Jim

    October 20, 2022 at 12:11 pm

    It’s the forever war syndrome.

    Don’t kid yourself, these guys are never done.

    So, now, we are looking down the barrel of a forever “Proxy” war in Ukraine (the most blood thirsty Ukraine supporters also, of course, support war with Iran).

    Repeat, after me, “No more forever wars!).

    • Lee

      October 21, 2022 at 1:34 am

      Reading this I wonder….
      Have you ever told the truth, EVER, in your life?
      As far as attacking Iran, they can shut down the Gulf. Isn’t Europe in enough trouble for listening to you clowns in the first place?
      If people like you and Obama hadn’t started the war in Ukraine in 2014 by throwing out the elected leader there using Neo-Nazis that country would be in a lot better shape today.
      Have you people inside the Beltway killed enough people, caused enough misery, and bombed enough countries?
      Just go away old man!

  28. Ezra Teter

    October 20, 2022 at 1:03 pm

    I don’t drive a car so I don’t particularly care if oil goes to $300 per barrel but this is a good way to make that happen, especially if Iran mines the Persian Gulf as a response.

  29. Ezra Teter

    October 20, 2022 at 1:06 pm

    This article begs the question: why aren’t we bombing Saudi Arabia and Israel?

  30. A.z

    October 23, 2022 at 1:00 pm

    I thank you very much for this article. It proves neocons r still around and not discredited enough so they can make a living teaching stuff about things they have been they have no business teaching. I hope u and ur kind continue to influence us policy because the world needs u. Dumbo bush and his neocon handlers r singularly responsible to give China breathing room and destroy us capabilities in fruitless wars and destroy American economy through idiotic policy and thus help end the unipolar world order and give us a multipolar world order. Keep at it professor, the world needs u.

    • Ferq

      October 24, 2022 at 3:55 pm

      Vampires like him still think this is 1960 and they can spout whatever lies and idiocies they want and the ignorant public will lap it up.

  31. AKH

    October 24, 2022 at 11:54 am

    If this idiotic idea happens, let’s make sure all your grandkids are on the frontline of that fight. If you want it, it needs to have a personal risk for you, not just for the rest of us.

    You neocons never give up trying to murder as many people as possible to maintain your pathetic little dying empire. Start a war with Iran, maintain the war with Russia and Ukraine, and start a war with China, Venezuela, Nicaragua, etc., etc. The US economy is only held together by the petrodollar that is now in decline. The population here in the US cares more about the economy and their personal self-interests than even the so-called enemies you disgusting murderers have propagandized them to hate. Your wet dreams about controlling the world are never going to happen. Your empire will be dead before I am. Have a nice day.

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