The failure of last week’s visits to Iran by the Japanese prime minister and German foreign minister is by now quite evident. Iran did not respond to calls for negotiations and restraint, but instead escalated its confrontation with the US and the international community with further attacks on international shipping and missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia. It has also announced that it plans to breach limits on its uranium stockpile in the near future and increase enrichment levels.
Last Wednesday, the Houthis attacked Abha Airport, injuring 26 civilians — an attack labeled by the New York-based Human Rights Watch as a possible war crime. On Thursday, two oil tankers, one Japanese and one Norwegian, were attacked in international waters, “almost certainly” by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The attacks coincided with German and Japanese attempts to defuse the situation. Later in the week, Saudi defenses intercepted several drone attacks against civilian targets in southern Saudi Arabia, including one over the city of Abha. The Houthis have claimed responsibility for these and hundreds of other missile and drone attacks, which they have stepped up to coincide with the attacks on international shipping in the Gulf region. Last month, similar attacks were launched against oil tankers off the UAE coast and an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia.
No one is sure what route Iran will follow next; whether they are trying to start a war through these provocations, or using the threat of war to pressure the US to change its sanctions and “maximum pressure” policy. Either way, Iran’s high stakes brinkmanship could lead to a military confrontation.
Assuming that the current low-intensity conflict continues, there is a needed to adopt a long-term approach to produce the desired results, including changing Iran’s behavior to ensure it lives within its borders like a normal state and according to the principles of international law and the UN Charter.
The first step is to strengthen the global consensus against Iran’s support for terrorism. The international community was able to unite to fight Daesh and Al-Qaeda. A similar approach should be followed to outlaw the IRGC globally, as the US and a few other countries have done. The Global Coalition Against Daesh, led by the US, included scores of countries — by no means every country, but it embodied a consensus that enabled it to act against Daesh. The attacks against oil tankers are clear acts of terrorism and should move skeptics to designate the IRGC as a terrorist enterprise and its leaders as terrorists.
Similarly, the Houthis have committed acts of terror and, in some cases, war crimes. Providing the Houthis with missiles and drones and training the militiamen to use them against civilians are also acts of terror and in clear violation of UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, including 2216 of April 2015, which was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. In some cases, the indiscriminate use of ballistic missiles and drones by Houthi militias, and their attacks against civilian targets, could constitute war crimes.
A global move to designate the Houthi militia as a terrorist group is warranted. Already, the UNSC has imposed sanctions against individual Houthi leaders, but the recent systematic attacks targeting civilians and civilian structures in Saudi Arabia have proved that the whole Houthi enterprise is terrorist in nature, i.e., deliberately using violence against civilians to achieve political goals.
After legally designating the IRGC and the Houthis as terrorist groups, the international community’s next step should be to follow the example of the Global Coalition Against Daesh. UNSC resolutions 2249 and 2253 and similar instruments have provided the framework under which the international community has dealt with Daesh, Al-Qaeda and similar designated organizations. They were mostly unanimously adopted, sometimes issued under Chapter VII of the Charter, and called upon all UN member states to redouble their efforts against these groups. That framework provided the international community, collectively or through coalitions of interested parties, to go after these terrorist enterprises. Depriving them of funds is an important step in this framework. Through the coordinated work of central banks, finance ministries and security organizations, channels of funding are gradually disrupted and terrorists are starved of the money need to carry out their activities.
The counter-terrorism framework exists and functions fairly well, and it could be adapted to deal with the IRGC and its proxies in the region, including the Houthi militias. All that is needed is the designation of a particular group as a terrorist organization.
The IRGC is a mammoth enterprise compared to Daesh or Al-Qaeda and, as such, it would be a difficult undertaking to stop its activities, but enough pressure could be put on its leaders to disabuse them of the idea that they can achieve their goals by attacking international shipping, oil pipelines, airports or other civilian targets. Hopefully, this would push them and Iran into accepting calls for negotiations and to discuss the underlying reasons for the US sanctions.