The Iranian government's response to US District Judge Royce Lamberth's ruling last week that Iran must pay US$2.65 billion to the families of the 241 US Marines killed in the 1983 bombing of the US barracks in Beirut came in the expected form: No way.
Despite the regime's less-than-stellar record on peace, its reaction to the court decision (which comes at a time when the US is seeking to further isolate Tehran) is not only understandable, but the correct one, as abiding by it would only exacerbate a system by which the US reigns primus inter pares, exempt from the laws that apply to the rest of humanity.
Had it chosen to do so, Tehran could easily have countered by arguing that by extension of Lamberth's logic, many Lebanese, who during the 1975 to 1990 Civil War were at the receiving end of hundreds of barrel-sized, 16-inch shells fired by US navy vessels, could also seek reparations for the numberless killed, a great many of whom were civilians.
Furthermore, it defies the imagination that a country could seek compensation for soldiers killed in the line of duty -- as peacekeepers or belligerents in an armed conflict -- as this is part of the risks a career in the military entails. It would be risible for Canada, for example, or Germany, to sue the Afghan government, or Pakistan, a supporter of Afghan militias, for the deaths of their soldiers participating in the stabilization mission in Afghanistan, or for African Union forces to do so when their soldiers begin to fall in Darfur next year. (Belgium reached the epitome of hypocrisy following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda by accusing the head of the UN mission there, General Romeo Dallaire of Canada, for failing to prevent the death of 10 of its paratroopers at the hands of Rwandan militias. A court martial later absolved Dallaire of any responsibility.)
By virtue of their presence in Lebanon, and as a result of Washington having taken sides in the Lebanese civil war, US soldiers, irrespective of how their mission was defined or construed by the families back in the US, became fair game. One organization, the nascent Lebanese Hezbollah, acted as it saw fit and targeted the army barracks, using means that sadly have become commonplace today -- a car bomb.
The attack itself, however horrific, was legitimate, for unlike the US embassy bombing earlier that same year, the victims in the Marines barracks were not civilian but military, a distinction that under international law means that, short of the use of proscribed weapons (chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear), it was not "illegal" to target them for attack, however unorthodox the means. In other words, despite arguments to the contrary, the attack did not constitute "terrorism."
In Hezbollah's view -- a view shared by many to this day -- the US soldiers were occupying their land, had chosen sides, were killing Lebanese and therefore needed to be ousted.
Sad as it is for the families of the victims, compensation through the seizure of Iranian assets worldwide would be wrong. The US has already attracted enough international opprobrium by refusing to become party to the International Criminal Court for fear that its soldiers would be unjustly tried in foreign courts for crimes committed in the line of duty. If, as US soldiers participate in armed conflicts (not an infrequent venture), foreign governments, groups or individuals were expected to pay for killing (or harming, if we push that concept to an extreme) them, it would only but fuel the resentment of which US soldiers are already a target.
Moreover, if such a precedent were set, nothing would prevent other equally venturesome nations (not to name any) from following suit. And just as the US (rightly) accused Iran of sponsoring Hezbollah, future prosecutors could in turn seek reparation from Washington for supporting and arming its own murderous proxies, such as Israel, for example, or the Iraqi military it is currently training.
Rather than seek reparation after soldiers are killed in a foreign land, the US should instead consider whether it was right to send them in the first place. Or, to be fair, it should pay compensation to the families of all the enemies it has killed in its countless wars.
Now, of course, that would be unreasonable.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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