An act of war?

Examining the implications of the U.S. raid on an Iranian consulate in Iraq.

Published January 11, 2007 8:20PM (EST)

Hot on the heels of the president's speech last night, which, as we observed earlier, contained some distinctly undiplomatic remarks about Iran and Syria, comes news of what appears to have been a raid by U.S. troops on an Iranian consulate in Iraq.

Accounts of what exactly happened at the consulate, in the Kurdish town of Irbil (also transliterated as Arbil or Erbil) differ: Iranian reports say it was a full-out raid, complete with helicopters on the roof, the disarming of the consulate guards and the breaking down of its doors. An unnamed U.S. official, however, told CNN that "no shots were fired. No altercation ensued. It was a knock on the door and 'Please come out.'" U.S. officials have also said that they believe the building was not a real consulate or diplomatic building. Iranian officials dispute that claim.

Speculation has abounded in the blogosphere about the international law implications of this action; Salon spoke with Rick Kirgis, a professor emeritus at Washington and Lee University, who is the secretary of the American Society of International Law, for his perspective on the matter. Kirgis himself noted the difficulty in determining the legality of the U.S. operation because of the ambiguity in the reports. He said that "one preliminary question would be whether this outfit, whatever it is, was established as either a diplomatic or consular mission with the consent of the Iraqi government." Iranian reports do seem to indicate that this is so. One says that "under an agreement between Baghdad and Tehran, Iran set up its consulate in the city in 2006 to facilitate cross-border visits of their citizens."

Kirgis also said that since this appears to be a consulate, rather than an embassy, restrictions on incursions into its space are somewhat less stringent; but, he says, "there's a provision in the Consular Convention that says consular officers shall not be liable to any restriction on their personal freedom, except in execution of a judicial decision." He says, however, that there is an argument to be made that those provisions would be suspended in times of an armed conflict, especially if the consular officers were active participants. Still, all told, Kirgis believes that "if it really was a consulate ... This looks like a violation."

Still, Kirgis said, this may not be the decisive stroke some have made it out to be, or at least not an "act of war," which is not a real term in international law anyway. Iran does have some options: It can protest -- which it has already done, to some degree, by calling in the ambassadors of Iraq and Switzerland, who serve as America's emissaries to Iran -- or it can claim the right of self-defense. If it does claim that right, though, any military response would need to be "proportional," Kirgis said.

Andy McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, sees the matter differently. In a post on the Corner, the conservative magazine National Review's blog, he lauded the raid as "welcome news," then wrote, "We would certainly regard [the raid] as an act of war if the tables were turned."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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