Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the United Nations last Thursday night was powerful, compelling and highlighted by a visual aid – a cartoon bomb drawing that he drew a red line through – that has become a bit of an Internet sensation.

Netanyahu’s dramatic performance has led to increased international focus, at least temporarily, of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. As such, the Israeli premier’s big speech was a big success, no?

Watching King Bibi warn the world that Iran would have enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb by next summer, a rather straightforward question comes to mind: if Israel perceives a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, why does the Jewish state need its right of self-defense validated by the United Nations?

According the Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, “…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 measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

To date, can anyone seriously contend that the Security Council has taken “…measures necessary to maintain international peace and security…” vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

Since 2003, the international community has been exerting pressure on Iran through the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to halt the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. These efforts have thus far proven ineffective.

Despite the imposition of sanctions aimed at slowing progress in developing nuclear weapons, a report released by the IAEA in September shows that that Iran added 1,076 centrifuges to the Fordow enrichment facility, which already had 1,064. Additionally, the Islamic Republic has now amassed nearly 438 pounds of 20% enriched uranium at both the Fordow and Natanz plants. At the same time, Iran is sharply increasing its capability to produce more rapidly the 20% enriched uranium and to go even higher to the 90%, weapons-grade level.

However, despite these facts and the Israeli leader’s strong words at the UN General Assembly, it appears that Netanyahu has chosen to outsource Israel’s self-defense to the prevailing currents of international opinion.

Is the United Nations Security Council the only competent authority for deciding whether a war is justifiable? While an argument can be made that the threat that Israel faces from Iran is not existential, this does negate the just use of preemptive military action.

For while justifiable wars include wars of necessity, that is, wars in which the most vital interests of a country are threatened and where there are no promising alternatives to using force, wars of choice are also justifiable.

Examples of wars of necessity include World War Two and the first Iraq war of 1990-1991, which was in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

On the other hand, wars of choice tend to involve less than vital interests and the existence of alternative policies.Vietnam, Kosovo and Bosnia were all wars of choice. So, too, was the second Iraq war begun in 2003.

A war of choice is most assuredly justifiable when using force is the best available policy option. The argument that the goal is worthy and that war is the best option for pursuing it should be strong enough to garner considerable domestic and international support. More important, the case should be persuasive that using military force will accomplish more good for more people at a lower cost than diplomacy, sanctions, or inaction.

In other words, should Israel decide on a military strike against Iran, such a decision may be ruled as illegal by UN standards but can nonetheless be judged as legitimate.

And such a move would not be unprecedented. Referring back to Kosovo, in 1999, the United States, expecting a Russian veto of military intervention to stop Serbian attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, sidestepped the United Nations completely and sought authorization for the use of force within NATO itself.

In the end, the Independent International Commission on Kosovo found that although formally illegal – the United Nations Charter demands that the use of force in any cause other than self-defense be authorized by the Security Council – the intervention was nonetheless legitimate in the eyes of the international community.

If Prime Minister Netanyahu’s argument is that his nation’s security interests are being threatened, and there is sufficient evidence to back up this assertion, then the United Nations should not be allowed to be used as a straitjacket that will prevent Israel from defending itself.

For while the main purpose of the United Nations is to resolve issues between countries through diplomacy before they resort to military force and before conflicts escalate, this best solution can often be twisted by conflict-based UN member states into a justification for inaction in a world filled with war-mongering dictators and repressive regimes.

In 1962, US President John F. Kennedy drew his own red line when it became known that Soviet missiles were being deployed in Cuba – missiles that allowed the Soviets to effectively target almost the entire continental United States.

Just as Kennedy downgraded the involvement of a hopelessly ineffective United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Prime Minister Netanyahu should re-channel his energies from consensus building to halting Iran’s offensive buildup.

Should the United Nations start its griping, all Mr. Netanyahu need do is refer those most earnest defenders of international justice to Chapter VII of their own founding Charter – and leave it at that.

 

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