Israel bombed the Iranian embassy compound. It is allowed?

Israel bombed a building that was part of the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on Monday, killing seven people, including Gen. Mohamad Reza Zahedi, who oversaw Iran's covert military operations in Syria and Lebanon, and two other senior generals.

For centuries, diplomatic posts have been afforded special protections. Diplomats gain immunity from prosecution in the host country, and embassy buildings are often seen as a sanctuary for their nation's citizens: the host country's police cannot enter them without permission from diplomatic staff, and they often become sanctuaries for wartime expatriates.

So attacks on diplomatic offices carry particular weight, both in the law and in the popular imagination. But in this case, experts say, Israel can probably argue that its actions did not violate international law protections for diplomatic missions. Here because.

Diplomatic buildings are entitled to broad protection against attack or other interference by the host country under customary international law, codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and the Convention on Consular Relations of 1963.

Article 22 of the Convention on Diplomatic Relations states:

“The mission premises will be inviolable. Agents of the host State will not be able to enter except with the consent of the head of mission. The host State has a special duty to take all appropriate measures to protect the mission premises against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance to the peace of the mission or injury to its dignity.

These protections remain in place even if the embassy is used for criminal or military purposes. The receiving state can sever diplomatic relations or revoke the diplomatic immunity of specific individuals and expel them from the country, but must still “respect and protect” the embassy buildings and their contents even after the closure of the mission.

Consular premises are also inviolable under Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In a particularly shocking example of how this can happen, after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018, Turkish officials had to wait days before finally being allowed to enter.

But while these rules of diplomatic relations are a fundamental principle of international law, they actually have little force in the case of the Damascus bombing, experts say, because they refer only to the responsibilities of the “receiving state” – in this case, Syria – and not to mention attacks by a third state on foreign territory.

“Israel is a third state and is not bound by the law on diplomatic relations regarding the Iranian embassy in Syria,” said Aurel Sari, a professor of international law at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Receiving states have an obligation to protect embassies from attack, Sari said, which would theoretically mean that Syria would have an obligation to protect the Iranian embassy if it could. However, it is not clear what protective measures she could have taken in this case.

In practice, there is a strong taboo in international relations against attacks on embassies, said Marko Milanovic, a professor of public international law at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. But this custom is broader than what international law actually prohibits, he said.

“Symbolically, for Iran, destroying its embassy or consulate is seen as a bigger blow,” he said, than “killing the generals in a trench somewhere.” But, he added, “the difference is not legal. The difference is really a question of symbolism, of perception.

“Embassies are protected from the use of force in an armed conflict, not primarily because they are embassies but because they are civilian objects,” said Yuval Shany, a professor of international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Therefore, in principle, it is not allowed to target an embassy in the same way that it is not allowed to target a school.”

An embassy, ​​however, may lose these protections if it is used for military purposes, as is the case for schools, homes and other civilian buildings in times of war. This would first be a fundamental question about the legality of the conflict itself: international law generally prohibits the use of force against another sovereign state, except in self-defense.

An Israeli military spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, neither confirmed nor denied Israel's role in the attack, but told CNN that the attack targeted “a Quds Force military building disguised as a civilian building in Damascus.” .

A member of the Revolutionary Guards, who oversee the Quds Force, told the Times that Monday's attack targeted a meeting where Iranian intelligence officials and Palestinian militants were discussing the war in Gaza. Among them were leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group armed and financed by Iran.

Iran has long blurred the line between its diplomatic missions and its military operations in the Middle East. He selects his ambassadors to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – countries that make up the “axis of resistance” – from among the commanders of the Quds Forces, the external branch of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, rather than from among his career diplomats. In 2021, Mohammad Javad Zarif, then Iranian Foreign Minister, said in a leaked recording that Iran's foreign policy in the region is determined by its military operations on the ground and not by traditional diplomacy established by the Foreign Ministry.

If the attack targeted individuals engaged in military operations against Israel, including through an armed proxy group, that would likely mean the building was a legitimate military target, Shany said.

Israel has been engaged in a shadow war with Iran for years that has involved multiple assassinations of Iranian military leaders and nuclear scientists.

Iran also arms and finances Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia that has bombed northern Israel and is also present in Syria.

International law would still require an attack to be proportional: the expected military gain should outweigh the damage to civilians and civilian property, including buildings. Iran's ambassador to Syria, Hossein Akbari, said on state television that no civilians were killed in Monday's attack.

In this case, Israel used force against two states: Iran, whose embassy and its generals were targeted, and Syria, the country where the embassy was located.

“An Israeli air strike carried out inside Syria without its consent would violate Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, which prohibits a State from using force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any other state,” said Sari, the Exeter professor. “Unless Israel was able to justify any airstrike as an act of self-defense, it would be in violation of international law.”

There is discussion among legal experts about how and when self-defense law can justify attacks on the territory of third countries, Shany said. It is a question of international law to what extent you could actually globalize your campaign and actually take it into the territory of third countries,” he said. “To some extent, the global war on terrorism has raised similar questions. To what extent can military assets in third countries be targeted?”

Farnaz Fassihi contributed to the reporting.

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