UN High Court Will Hear Iran Challenge to US Sanctions

Iran wants to the court to block sanctions that were reimposed after the Trump administration pulled out of an international nuclear deal with Tehran.

A United Nations flag flutters in the wind next to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The United Nations’ high court ruled Wednesday that it has jurisdiction to hear a dispute brought by Iran against the United States over the reinstatement of sanctions in 2018. 

The International Court of Justice rejected multiple objections made by the U.S. that it lacked jurisdiction and Iran’s case was inadmissible because the claims were based on a 1955 friendship treaty, an agreement separate from the 2015 nuclear deal. 

“The court unanimously rejects the preliminary objection to its jurisdiction raised by the United States of America according to which the subject-matter of the dispute does not relate to the interpretation or application of the Treaty of Amity,” said ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, reading the decision out loud to a mostly empty courtroom in The Hague. 

In May 2018, the Trump administration abruptly pulled out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, and reinstated economic sanctions. Signed by then-President Barack Obama, the agreement required Iran to dismantle much of its nuclear program in exchange for having severe economic sanctions lifted. 

Iran had argued the withdrawal violated 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. The treaty guaranteed that people and commerce can move freely between the two countries.

According to the U.S., the reimposed sanctions were related to the nuclear agreement, which the court has no jurisdiction over. 

“Certain acts may fall within the ambit of more than one instrument and a dispute relating to those acts may relate to the ‘interpretation or application’ of more than one treaty or other instrument,” Wednesday’s ruling states.

Hearings in the case wrapped up last September. Representatives from the U.S. argued that the sanctions targeted third parties, specifically companies that do business with Iran, and therefore are not covered by the treaty.

“There is no bilateral nexus between Iran and the United States,” Kimberly Gahan, assistant legal adviser for the State Department, told the court via video link.   

But the ICJ disagreed, holding Iran is directly hurt by the sanctions.

“The court observes that all the measures of which Iran complains … are intended to weaken Iran’s economy,” the 16-judge panel unanimously found. 

Iran brought the case to the U.N.’s high court in July 2018. A few months later, the ICJ ordered the U.S. to lift sanctions on humanitarian goods, such as those affecting medicine and food, following an Iranian request for provisional measures.

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo withdrew the U.S. from the treaty soon after, calling the move “frankly …39 years overdue,” referencing the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after the U.S. embassy was overrun.  

Wednesday’s decision comes only weeks after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who is expected to have a very different relationship with Iran than his predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden has said he wants to restore the nuclear agreement.

On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told CNN: “The United States has a limited window of opportunity because President Biden does not want to portray himself as trying to take advantage of the failed policies of the former Trump administration.”

The two countries have another dispute pending before the court over the seizure of $2 billion in assets from Iranian state-owned entities to compensate victims of the 1983 bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, and other attacks linked to Iran. Hearings are expected in that case sometime later this year. 

The ICJ is also expected to hold hearings on the merits of the sanctions case in the next year. 

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