The World of International Organizations

Top U.N. court to hear Iran’s case against U.S.

Tehran's marbled Azadi (Freedom) Tower, a landmark monument often lit up for national themes (AN/William John Gauthier)
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The International Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday it will hear Iran’s case challenging the U.S. economic sanctions reimposed by the former Trump administration in 2018.

The United Nations’ top court for settling disputes among countries voted overwhelmingly that it has jurisdiction to hear the case, rejecting U.S. lawyers’ arguments for throwing the case out. That sets in motion a potentially years-long process of deciding the case’s merits.

“Another legal victory for Iran,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter. “Iran has always fully respected international law. High time for the U.S. to live up to its international obligations.”

ICJ Judge Peter Tomka of Slovakia wrote in a court summary of the case that “the legal question which the court should have determined at this stage of the proceedings is whether the 1955 Treaty of Amity provides Iran (and its nationals or companies) with a right not to have its trade, commercial or financial relations with third states (and their nationals or companies) interfered with by the United States’ measures.”

Iran claimed in its suit that the sanctions breached the little-known U.S.-Iran Treaty of Amity on economic and consular ties that was signed at Tehran in 1955 and entered into force in 1957. The two countries came to the agreement during the Eisenhower administration, when the U.S. and Iran were allies in the wake of the 1953 revolution that ushered in Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s rule.

Iran brought the case to ICJ in July 2018, soon after former U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would pull the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, between Iran and six world powers. Trump also threatened sanctions against other nations that refused to cut off imports of Iranian oil.

U.S. ‘disappointed’

Wednesday’s decision was a follow-up to ICJ’s October 2018 preliminary order that the United States must lift economic sanctions against Iran on imports of humanitarian goods linked to civil aviation safety that the U.S. reimposed earlier that year. Judges at The Hague, Netherlands-based court had found the United States violated the 1955 treaty, but emphasized the ruling did not mean it had weighed the entire case’s merits or jurisdiction.

Hours after that 2018 ruling was issued, the Trump administration cancelled the treaty which predates Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution — and the U.S. Embassy takeover, hostage crisis and severing of U.S.-Iran relations. In a bid to put maximum pressure on Tehran’s battered economy, Trump also restored sanctions on Iran’s energy sector and foreign transactions after withdrawing the United States from the JCPOA.

Even with a new administration under President Joe Biden, whose strategy is to restore diplomacy with Iran and constraints on its nuclear program, the United States was “disappointed” by ICJ’s decision, according to State Department spokesman Ned Price. U.S. lawyers had argued the treaty ruled out using courts to resolve disputes, and the sanctions were justified under national security measures that Tehran could not challenge before the ICJ.

“We have great respect for the International Court of Justice. At the same time, we are disappointed that the court did not accept our well-founded legal arguments that the case Iran brought is outside the court’s jurisdiction and the court should not hear it,” Price told a regular press briefing in Washington.

“In the next phase of this case, we’ll explain why Iran’s claim has no merits,” he said. “We remain clear-eyed about the dangers posed by Iran’s malign activities.”

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