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Why Iran is battling US at International Court of Justice

Iran has turned to the International Court of Justice in a battle to end current and pending US sanctions, though the United States has already said it doesn't recognize the court's jurisdiction in the matter.

For the past 40 years, it's been a rarity to see the United States and Iran come together over an issue without a confrontation. But the two sides finally forged an agreement in July 2015 and — along with four other world powers —  signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Washington, however, abandoned the accord four months ago, leaving the weary relations between the two nations in tatters.

The US reversal on the nuclear deal and its reimposition of sanctions has prompted Iran to search for any possible tools and means to minimize the impact of the apparent "maximum pressure" campaign to bring Tehran to its knees.

The heightened animosity has led to the resurrection of the 63-year-old Treaty of Amity between the two foes, with Iran turning to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s highest court, to argue for freezing the US sanctions on the basis that they violate that treaty. 

The Iranian government, according to the ICJ, filed a case July 17 claiming that the United States has breached its obligations to Iran under numerous articles of the treaty, and therefore should “terminate the nuclear-related sanctions without delay” and “immediately terminate its threats with respect to the announced further sanctions.” The Iranian side is also calling on the United States to guarantee it will not circumvent the court's decision or repeat "its violations of the [1955 treaty]" and "fully compensate Iran for the violation of its international legal obligations" with an amount to be determined by the court later.

This is the fifth time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that The Hague-based ICJ has been the venue of a confrontation between the two foes.

The United States first referred to the Treaty of Amity during the hostage crisis at its embassy in Tehran from November 1979 to January 1981. Then, after the United States downed an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, killing 290 people, Tehran referred to the treaty when it filed a complaint with the ICJ. The third time the Treaty of Amity was invoked was in 1992, when Iran turned to the ICJ after a US attack on Iranian oil fields in the Persian Gulf. After the JCPOA was implemented in 2016, Iran also referred to the treaty to complain about the United States freezing $2 billion in Iranian assets to fulfill a claim for damages by families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In The Hague, Mohsen Mohebi, Iran’s presidential adviser for international law, addressed the ICJ on 30 points, urging the court to protect its rights from an irreparable prejudice. Iran’s counsel included British and French advocates alongside Iranian lawyers, who took to the stage to explain the Islamic Republic’s requests for provisional measures.

The United States condemns Iranian policies by linking the sanctions to the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, a claim the US State Department has described as a serious threat to the United States and the international community. As such, the US strategy at the ICJ aims at unlinking the Iranian complaint and the 1955 treaty, and to argue that the ICJ is not the right venue to pursue the matter. In addition, the United States argues Iran has been violating the 1955 treaty since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

British member of the US team, Sir Daniel Bethlehem, argued that the court should dismiss Iran’s lawsuit because the chaos in Iran’s economy was being caused by the country's own mismanagement and not by US sanctions.

Bethlehem referred to an Aug. 23 speech by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which he had stated, “Economic experts and many officials agree that today's livelihood problems do not emerge from foreign sanctions." He added, “Rather, they are tracked down to our internal issues. Many officials have explicitly mentioned this. The experts also — as far as I know — agree on 'internal factors' as the source for the crisis. The sanctions may have played a role in creating the current economic situation, but domestic factors play a stronger role in the matter. If actions are taken more efficiently, more prudently, more swiftly and more firmly, sanctions cannot have much of an effect, and they can be resisted.”

However, Davoud Aghaei, a well-known expert on international law in Iran, told Al-Monitor that Iran’s position in The Hague is strong and that despite US claims to the contrary, Iran is fully entitled to turn to the UN court to pursue its claim.

“The US has violated international law on several occasions, not to mention its violation of several United Nations Security Council resolutions," Aghaei said. “The US did not respect the nuclear deal; neither did it respect its partners in the JCPOA and decided to get out [of the accord] and moreover violate international law by imposing sanctions on Iran’s economy, threatening our people’s safety and security. We want a just ruling from the ICJ that gives Iran back its rights.”

Iran is appealing to the ICJ to acknowledge its rights and plans to build on that acknowledgement on the diplomatic front. Indeed, Iran's diplomacy is realistic enough to understand that the ICJ ruling could either be in its favor without any means to enforce it, or could simply be against Iran, in which case it would not result in any further loss, as Iran is already under the threat of additional sanctions in November.

Thus, if the court rules in Iran's favor, despite having no means of enforcement, the case will become a new tool for Iran to remind the international community that the United States not only opted out of a multilateral accord, but also defied a ruling by the top UN court. Only time will tell how the battle for moral high ground will pan out.

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