Israel bombed an Iranian Embassy complex. Is that allowed?

On Monday, Israel bombed a building that was part of the Iranian Embassy complex in Damascus, 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 premises have been afforded special protections. Diplomats get immunity from prosecution in their host country, and embassy buildings are often viewed as a “sanctuary” of sorts for their nation’s citizens — they cannot be entered by the host country’s police without the permission of diplomatic staff, and often become refuges for expatriates in times of war.

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

Diplomatic buildings are entitled to broad protections from attack or other interference by the host country under international customary law, codified in the 1961 Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations.

Article 22 of the Convention on Diplomatic Relations states:

“The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.”

Those protections remain in force even if the embassy is used for criminal or military purposes. The receiving state can break off diplomatic relations, or revoke the diplomatic immunity of specific individuals and eject them from the country, but it must still “respect and protect” the embassy buildings and their contents even after the mission has closed.

Consulate premises are likewise inviolable under Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In a particularly shocking example of how that can play out, after the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey in 2018, Turkish officials had to wait for days before they were finally given permission to enter.

But while those rules of diplomatic relations are a bedrock principle of international law, they actually have little force in the case of the Damascus bombing, experts say, because they only refer to the responsibilities of the “receiving State” — in this case, Syria — and say nothing about attacks by a third state on foreign territory.

“Israel is a third state and is not bound by the law of diplomatic relations with regard to Iran’s Embassy in Syria,” said Aurel Sari, a professor of international law at Exeter University in the United Kingdom.

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

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

“Symbolically, for Iran, destroying its embassy or consulate, it’s just seen as a bigger blow,” he said, than “if you killed the generals in a trench somewhere,” because of the idea that an embassy represents the state. But, he added, “the difference is not legal. The difference is really one of symbolism, of perception.”

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

An embassy can lose those protections, however, if it is used for a military purpose, as is true of schools, homes, and other civilian buildings during wartime. That would first be a threshold question about whether the conflict itself is legal: International law generally prohibits the use of force against another sovereign state, except in self-defense.

An Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari did not confirm or deny Israel’s role in the attack but told CNN that the strike had targeted “a military building of Quds Forces disguised as a civilian building in Damascus.”

A member of the Revolutionary Guards, which oversee the Quds Force, told the Times that the strike on Monday had targeted a meeting in which Iranian intelligence officials and Palestinian militants were discussing the war in Gaza. Among them were leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group armed and funded by Iran.

Iran has long blurred the lines between its diplomatic missions and its military operations in the Middle East. It selects its ambassadors to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — countries that make up the “axis of resistance” — from the commanders of the Quds Forces, the external branch of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, rather than its career diplomats. In 2021, Mohammad Javad Zarif, then Iran’s foreign minister, said in a leaked recording that Iran’s foreign policy in the region is determined by its field military operations and not traditional diplomacy set by the foreign ministry.

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

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

Iran also arms and funds Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia , which has been bombing northern Israel, and that also has a presence in Syria..

International law would still require an attack to be proportional: the expected military gain would have to outweigh the harm to civilians and civilian objects, including buildings. Iran’s ambassador to Syria, Hossein Akbari, told state television that no civilians were killed in the attack on Monday.

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

“An Israeli airstrike carried out within Syria without its consent would be in contravention of 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 professor at Exeter. “Unless Israel were able to justify any airstrike as an act of self-defense, it would be in violation of international law.”

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

Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting

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