Cyber Attacks and the Use of Force


Matthew C. Waxman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Law and Foreign Policy

Volume 36, Issue 2
Yale Journal of International Law


Suppose that the United States, in opposing Iran’s suspected development of nuclear weapons, decides that the best way to halt or slow Iran’s program is to undermine the Iranian banking system, calculating that the ensuing financial pressure would dissuade or prevent Iran from continuing on its current course. And further suppose that the United States draws up the following four options, all of which are believed likely to produce roughly the same impact on Iran’s financial system and have similar effects on Iran’s economy and population:

(1) Military air strikes against key Iranian banking facilities to destroy some of the financial system’s physical infrastructure;

(2) A regulatory cut-off of Iranian banks from the U.S. financial system, making it difficult for Iran to conduct dollarized transactions;

(3) Covert flooding of the Iranian economy with counterfeit currency and other financial instruments;

(4) Scrambling Iranian banking data by infiltrating and corrupting its financial sector’s computer networks.

Which of these options constitute uses of force, subject to the U.N. Charter’s prohibitions and self-defense provisions?

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