Thursday, January 11, 2007
no peace talks:
When I was in Irbil last year, we drove through a grimy residential area during a lag between interviews, and suddenly G*****, my translator, pointed to a small, undistinguished white building. "That's the Iranian consulate." I figured I might as well see if I could talk to the Iranians. So I asked G***** if he would mind going up to the guard and asking if anyone in the consulate would grant an interview to a Canadian journalist. No luck. We were told that we had to go through a fixer from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the ruling warlords in Irbil. A tedious conversation later, and it was clear that the guy was not inclined to help, but he was very interested in collecting information on me, so that was the end of that.

One year and one bellicose presidential speech later, U.S. forces have invaded that very consulate and detained six members of its staff. (H/T Jonah Goldberg.)

The troops raided the building at about 0300 (0001GMT), taking away computers and papers, according to Kurdish media and senior local officials.

The US military would only confirm the detention of six people around Irbil. ...

Iranian media said the country's embassy in Baghdad had sent a letter of protest about the raid to the Iraqi foreign ministry.

One Iranian news agency with a correspondent in Irbil says five US helicopters were used to land troops on the roof of the Iranian consulate.

It reports that a number of vehicles cordoned off the streets around the building, while US soldiers warned the occupants in three different languages that they should surrender or be killed.

This is pretty surprising. There are practically no U.S. troops in Irbil, for the simple reason that the pesh merga have that situation well under control. (True story: if a Kurd sees an Arab in Irbil, he calls everyone he knows to warn them about a terrorist; and then they call everyone they know. I found this out when a journalist friend went to buy some bootleg DVDs and saw an Arab in an SUV.) At the KDP defense ministry, there's a liaison office for the U.S., and I saw not a single American. One interpretation is that MNF-I wants to send the message that Iranians in Iraq can be hurt in unlikely places.

Also, for the record, technically, we just invaded Iranian soil. In combination with Bush's speech ("...We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria..."), the augmentation of U.S. naval assets in the Persian Gulf, and the detention of Iranian nationals in Arab Iraq late last year, we've been rapidly inching up to expanding the war eastward. Perhaps Bush figured that as long as he was respooling a Vietnam reel, he needed a Ho Chi Minh Trail.
--Spencer Ackerman
Technically, consulate premises are *not* the territory of sending states, but the consular mission itself is inviolate to the degree of protection granted by the two controlling treaties (the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and Diplomatic Relations), any particular bilateral arrangements, and state law.

Thus the keys here, inter alia, are whether Iran and Iraq are treaty signatories; whether Kurdistan acknowledges that it is bound by any Iraqi accession to the treaty; whether the Iranian consulate was a formal consular mission that received an Iraqi exequatur; and any Iraqi or Kurdish laws that might be controlling. Plus there's that minor contretemps that Iran kicked up in 1979 that indicated they didn't have much respect for consular inviolability, which also adds a bit of a wrinkle to the issue.

In any case, the principle of diplomatic and consular inviolability and protection indicates that in a theater of war American troops be bound to respect the premises of a foreign embassy or consulate.

This ain't new -- Grotius, drawing on centuries of diplomatic practice, laid out the reasoning and limits of diplomatic immunity in his 'De Jure Belli ac Pacis' (1625). If this was an accredited consulate (and I should stress that just 'cause it's called a consulate don't make it so), then we as a nation are guilty of a serious breach of international law.
Blogger Watchful | 7:33 AM

Watchful: very interesting, and I stand corrected on my understanding of international law. However, it stands to reason that the purpose of invading the consulate is to convey precisely this message, even if we'll subsequently retreat to legalisms. Invading another nation's diplomatic facility has consequences.
Blogger spencerackerman | 8:08 AM

Spence,

I agree that the optics of the situation are basically insensitive to the legal situation -- although the difference between attacking a consulate and a quasi-official delegation may make all the difference in the question of legality, as far as international opinion is concerned it'll all look the same. And it's another escalation on the ratchet of American-Iranian bellicosity, which both sides have been working overtime lately.

In any case, Fars' report on the raid says that "Iran's consulate general in Erbil was established upon the Iraqi government's request," which at least suggests that this was an accredited consulate we attacked.

What, do you think, are the ramifications of the Pesh Merga taking over the complex, presumably without the permission of the central Iraqi government? I know Kurdistan has been de facto independent from Iraq for a while, but since Iraq's ambassador in Tehran is going to have to answer for this, is there the likelihood of further internal fallout?
Blogger Watchful | 9:52 AM

Perhaps Bush figured that as long as he was respooling a Vietnam reel, he needed a Ho Chi Minh Trail.

I think it's quite possible that Bush wants to expand the war a la Vietnam precisely because he's been warned that Iraq is another Vietnam -- yet another case of his preadolescent "whatever you warn me not to do is what I really want to do" style of governance.
Blogger Steve M. | 4:20 PM

Steve M:

I think it's more likely a case where Cheney and his cabal see Vietnam as a case of not expanding the war's dimensions and intensity enough. To Cheney, Iraq can only be "won" by "taking out" every bad apple in the Middle East basket. Iran and Syria have been on their radar screen for a long time now, and they're working as hard as ever to maneuver within the administration and convince Bush that nailing the two countries is the way to win in Iraq.

Needless to say, this is a monumental misunderstanding of the core problems confronting us in Iraq and the larger fight against Al-Qaeda generally. I don't know if "bomb them back to the stone age" is on Cheney's autosignature, but I suspect that's what he has in mind, to force these parties to surrender. Ain't going to happen in any real sense, but that appears to be the delusion for Cheney.
Blogger kurzbein | 7:52 AM