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US seizure of Iranian assets may open old wounds

One month after the US Supreme Court’s ruling that frozen Iranian assets can be used to compensate families of victims of a 1983 bombing, the Rouhani administration is under mounting pressure to take action.

TEHRAN, Iran — More than a month after the US Supreme Court’s ruling that some $2 billion in offshore Iranian assets can be used to compensate families of victims of the 1983 bombing of the US Marines headquarters in Beirut, some Iranian officials are urging their government to take action by referring the case to the International Court of Justice.

Tehran has always denied any involvement in the 1983 bombing. As such, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, infuriated Iranian officials described the move as daylight robbery and piracy. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the ruling amounts to theft, noting that Iran does not recognize verdicts against it handed down by courts in other states. Moreover, in a letter to the UN secretary-general, Zarif wrote that such rulings violate the principle of state immunity and asked that his letter be circulated among the UN General Assembly.

Controversy quickly arose in Tehran over responsibility for the purchase of the bonds that have been confiscated by the United States. Some have shifted the blame to the previous government under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose office vehemently denies the accusation.

Assuming no change to the Supreme Court ruling, the Iranian government has now resorted to threats against the US administration, with President Hassan Rouhani vowing to “take the case to international court.” But is Rouhani serious?

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Iranian academic and foreign policy scholar Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh said, “In the first place, Rouhani’s reaction and his talk [about suing the United States in an international court] is an immediate response to quiet down [domestic] critics.”

Mojtahed-Zadeh told Al-Monitor he sees the seizure of the Iranian assets in the context of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, saying, “Reality shows that promises exchanged between the Iranian and American governments, known as the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], have not been solemn or genuine enough, and there is no guarantee from the American side to fulfil its commitments. As a result, [the Americans] are able to do whatever they wish.”

Asked about the viability of a complaint in an international court, Mojtahed-Zadeh  a once-ardent supporter of the nuclear deal who recently turned against it — told Al-Monitor, “It is not clear whether or not such a case falls under the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice at The Hague.“ According to him, the main question is “if the Iranian government is ready to publish the details of the deal sealed with Washington, and more importantly, does the American party agree to reveal such details? Because the devil is in the details,” hinting at unannounced understandings between Iran and the United States.

Iranian lawyer and academic Seyed Mahmoud Kashani holds a rather different view. He told Al-Monitor he believes that the seizure of the Iranian assets has nothing to do with the JCPOA, because the root causes of the matter are not related to the nuclear deal. Kashani, who was the head of the Iranian arbitration group at the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal at The Hague from 1981 to 1984, told Al-Monitor, “With or without the JCPOA, the US Supreme Court would issue such a ruling.” He added that the move is illegal, since “according to international law, the United Sates cannot confiscate Iranian money in its banks.” He underscored, “Washington should be held responsible for such a wrong ruling.”

Meanwhile, some in Tehran have already sprung to action. In mid-May, 174 of the Iranian parliament’s 290 lawmakers voted for a motion obliging the Rouhani administration to take legal action and claim compensation from the United States for its actions against Iran in past decades. Some of the “crimes” named by the lawmakers include moral and financial damage that Iran sustained as a result of the 1953 CIA-orchestrated coup against the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The lawmakers also demand that Washington pay for US attacks on Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf at the height of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and to compensate for the assistance it extended to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Of note, declassified CIA documents suggest that the United States knew Saddam was launching some of the worst chemical attacks to date, yet did nothing to stop him. Instead, the documents reveal that American intelligence officials conveyed the location of Iranian forces to the Iraqis, fully aware that Saddam would attack them with nonconventional weapons.

When asked about the possible complaints that could be filed against the United States, Kashani told Al-Monitor that the decision to sue Washington is up to the Rouhani administration, and that it should address this question. Kashani added that if Tehran decides to take legal action, it need not be limited to the Iran-United Sates Claims Tribunal, which he said was “not powerful enough to adjudicate between the two governments or reclaim the Iranians’ rights,” arguing that “other international bodies, such as the International Court of Justice, have jurisdiction over such matters.”

Kashani, the son of senior cleric Abol-Ghassem Kashani, who played a prominent role along with Mossadegh in the 1951 nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, told Al-Monitor that international legal cases are “very delicate and sensitive issues, and not emotional matters.” In this vein, he argued that the Iranian government therefore must consider all aspects of the issue by discussing it with well-informed individuals and experts in international law before deciding whether to take legal action against the US government — in any court.

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