Who Started It?

Closing Hormuz

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Ron Paul: Far Right or Far Left?

The closure of an international body of water is an act of war. If Iran implemented such a policy in the Strait of Hormuz, it would thus constitute an act of war. This is because in order to do so, this country would have to physically violate the rights of peaceful shippers. One might object that at present, Iran has only threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. However, in my understanding of libertarian theory based upon the non aggression principle (NAP) not only are people (or governments!) not permitted to actually invade, or violate the rights of peaceful individuals, they are not entitled to threaten this either.

However, before we unduly criticize the Iranians for this threat, let us put the matter in context. The U.S. government has also threatened a blockade of Iran. With many statements emanating from Washington D.C. to the effect that the U.S. government "is not taking anything off the table," they are menacing actions a lot more serious, and invasive, than a mere blockade.

Why is the U.S. acting in so bellicose a manner? This is because it seems to be a settled part of present American policy that Iran should not persist in its (supposed) goal of arming itself with nuclear weapons.

Now, somewhat paradoxically, I agree with the Obama administration on this matter. Iran should not have nuclear weapons. But, neither should anyone else! Why not? This is because they are necessarily offensive. This type of ordnance cannot be used in a way that distinguishes between the guilty and the innocent. States Rothbard in this regard: "… while the bow and arrow and even the rifle can be pinpointed, if the will be there, against actual criminals, modern nuclear weapons cannot. Here is a crucial difference in kind. Of course, the bow and arrow could be used for aggressive purposes, but it could also be pinpointed to use only against aggressors. Nuclear weapons, even u2018conventional' aerial bombs, cannot be. These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction." (For a further elaboration of this thesis and a discussion of its implications, see here.)

However, this demand of Iran on the part of the U.S. comes with particular ill grace given the fact that the latter country has thousands of such nuclear devices. If the Obama Administration had suddenly become infused with libertarianism in general, and with Rothbard's analysis of nuclear weapons in particular, it would certainly be justified in continuing to press the Iranians not to develop such firearms. But it would begin this quest by getting rid of its own stocks first.

But are not the Iranians unstable? Are they not likely, under the leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to use these items against innocent people? Did not this person threaten to wipe Israel off the map with them, that is, use such weapons against that country? No. This was a mis-translation of what he actually said (see here, here, here, here, here and especially here). Nor is it possible to ignore the fact that there is only one country on the face of the earth that has actually employed atomic weapons against innocent men, women and children. And that country, strangely enough, is not Iran. Rather, it is the good old U.S. of A., land of the free and home of the brave. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and especially here).

So, while I certainly endorse Rothbard's analysis according to which any and all atomic weaponry is illicit according the NAP, it does not at all logically follow that a country with thousands of such armaments, that has the distinction of being the only one to have ever murdered people with such a heinous weapon, is justified in using force to prevent another nation from obtaining one for itself. (I here stipulate, arguendo, that this is indeed the case; Iran of course insists it is interested in nuclear power for entirely peaceful purposes.)

Now that we have explored the context, let us return to the Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. From a libertarian point of view, in order to assess the validity of this threat, we must ask, Does this constitute initiatory aggression, or threats, or retaliation? For libertarians are not pacifists. We reserve the right to employ threats, aggression, violence, provided, only, that it is in response to a prior act, but does not constitute the prior act itself. So, did Iran "start up" with the U.S., or did the U.S. begin the hostilities?

When put in this stark manner, it is difficult in the extreme to see the Iranians as the aggressors. At worst, they were going to build a nuclear weapon, not merely avail themselves of the peaceful use of this technology. Along comes a country, much larger and more powerful than theirs, certainly lacking "clean hands" in this regard, and orders them to cease and desist, under dire threat. So, in response, the Iranians issue a threat of their own: to close off international waters to peaceful shipping. Yes, Iran is in the wrong for so doing. But, they are not the real villain of the piece. That guilt lies elsewhere. The threat of the blockade against Iran came first. Only then did the Iranians make their own threat.