Fight Between US and Iran Over Sanctions Wraps at UN High Court

The International Court of Justice hears a sanctions dispute between the U.S. and Iran on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (UN Photo/ICJ-CIJ/Frank van Beek)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — A week of hearings into whether the United Nations’ high court has jurisdiction to determine whether the Trump administration’s decision to back out of the Iran nuclear deal and reinstate sanctions violates a 65-year-old friendship treaty wrapped Monday.

“The inescapable conclusion is that the court has jurisdiction to adjudicate these claims,” said Hamidreza Oloumiyazdi, head of Iran’s Centre for International Legal Affairs. Iran wants the International Court of Justice to hear the dispute, which is based on the 1955 Treaty of Amity, a little-known agreement that was one of many the U.S. signed following World War II to counter the Soviet Union, which guarantees that people and commerce can move freely between the two countries. 

The hearings, held in a virtual/in-person hybrid model, commenced last week with opening statements from the United States followed by opening statements from Iran on Wednesday

The U.S. maintains that withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA,  in 2018 was of national security importance and beyond the scope of the treaty. “The state asserting the necessity of a measure to protect its essential security interests should be afforded substantial deference,” Lisa Grosh, assistant legal adviser at U.S. Department of State, told the court during the U.S. rebuttal on Friday. 

Further, the United States contends the treaty addresses the requirements for a bilateral relationship and says nothing about third parties, who are the targets of the sanctions.

“The court can, and should, find that Iran’s claims based on third-country measures are outside the scope of the treaty,” said State Department assistant legal adviser Kimberly Gahan last week. The were sanctions first put into place in by the Obama administration in 2012, targeting countries and companies doing business with Iran. 

“It is erroneous to propose that …[the treaty] only covers economic relations between the territories of the states parties,” argued Jean-Marc Thouvenin, professor of law at the University Paris Nanterre. The economic sanctions against Tehran have been debilitating since the Trump administration tore up the Obama-era agreement, closing off Iranian business to much of the world market. 

In 2018, Iran requested provisional measures which the court granted, ordering the U.S. to lift sanctions on humanitarian goods including medicine and food. The same day, the U.S. announced it would terminate its participation in the treaty. 

“We have absolutely no desire to cause suffering to the Iranian people,” Marik String, the acting legal adviser for the State Department, told the court at the end of the U.S.’s presentation on Friday. But Hamidreza Oloumiyazdi, head of Iran’s Centre for International Legal Affairs, ended Monday’s hearing on a doubtful note: U.S. actions speak louder than its words.

The countries, which have had cold relations since 1979, when 52 Americans were held hostage by Iran for 444 days after the U.S. embassy was overrun following an uprising, are facing off before the ICJ in another case focusing on the treaty. The court found that it had jurisdiction to hear an unrelated case based in which Iran argues the U.S. violated the same treaty when it seized assets held by Iranian state-owned companies to compensate victims of attacks linked to Iran. 

A ruling is expected by the end of the year.

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