The Legality of Attacking Iran

As the drumbeat for strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities grows louder, attention has begun to focus on the key international-law question: Would such strikes be legal? Many conservatives tend to think that international law doesn’t matter, because we know we’re right and international law is just another fiefdom of clueless liberal academics.

Both of those things are true, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the issue of legality. The reason is strategic. International law supplies the terms of diplomatic debate, which in turn shapes public discourse, which in turn determines the degree of public support for a war policy. In a democracy, politics constrain the range of choices available to leaders. That is how international law affects the effective reach of strategic power.

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