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.