Skip to content

U.S. ordered to lift some Iran sanctions

The U.N.'s highest court ordered the United States to lift some economic sanctions against Iran. Hours later, the U.S. cancelled a U.S.-Iran treaty.

The U.N.'s highest court ordered the United States to lift economic sanctions against Iran on imports of humanitarian goods linked to civil aviation safety. Hours later, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration cancelled a 63-year-old treaty on U.S.-Iran economic and consular ties.

Judges at The Hague, Netherlands-based International Court of Justice unanimously issued a legally binding ruling that sanctions reinstated by the Trump administration last May breached a 1955 treaty between Iran and the United States that predates Iran's Islamic Revolution.

The Trump administration reinstated U.S. sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. Iran then used the treaty to challenge the sanctions in the International Court of Justice, which settles disputes among nations.

Iran asked for the sanctions to be enjoined until the full case could be heard which would likely takes years, according to a court statement. The Trump administration had said the case was meritless and fell outside the court's jurisdiction, because it was a matter of national security.

The court’s president, Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, emphasized the ruling was a preliminary measure and did not mean the court decided the entire case or established it had jurisdiction.

For now, the United States must act "in accordance with its obligations under the 1955 Treaty of Amity" and "remove, by means of its choosing, any impediments arising from the measures" that the Trump administration announced on May 8, the judges ordered.

The measures had to do with Iranian imports of medicine and medical devices, food and agricultural commodities and spare parts and equipment needed to ensure civil aviation safety. The judges said reimposed U.S. sanctions “have the potential to endanger civil aviation safety” and also “may have a serious detrimental impact on the health and lives" of Iranians.

The United States must “ensure that licenses and necessary authorizations are granted” and payments for humanitarian and aviation goods are unrestricted, the judges said, adding that both countries must “refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute.”

Iranian state television called it a victory over Washington, but the Trump administration was expected to challenge the court’s jurisdiction. It was not immediately clear how the Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the treaty affected the ruling. Both nations have gotten away with ignoring ICJ rulings in the past.

Iran contended Trump’s decision violated the little-known U.S.-Iran Treaty of Amity, which 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.

That was long before the 1979 Islamic Revolution that led to severed diplomatic relations, the U.S. Embassy takeover and hostage crisis. But the treaty had remained in force — until now. The Trump administration, which has been withdrawing from U.N. agencies and shown little respect for the world body's authority, described Iran’s request as a misuse of the international court.

U.S. lawyers argued at the court that the Amity Treaty specifically ruled out using courts to resolve disputes, and that the sanctions were justified under national security measures that Tehran cannot challenge before the ICJ.

Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, told reporters at the White House that the administration also would pull out of an amendment to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that Iran or the Palestinians could conceivably use to sue the United States before a U.N.-administered international court.

“The United States will not sit idly by as baseless politicized claims are brought against us,” said Bolton, citing a case in which Palestinians are challenging the Trump administration's decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Contempt for international order

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA as the 2015 Iran deal is more generally known,  lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. But it has been in serious doubt with the reimposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran as of August 7.

Trump’s move in May to renege on the deal ratcheted up pressure on Iran’s struggling economy and ruling regime, and inflamed U.S.-European tensions.

Trump said in a statement that the renewed sanctions, including those aimed at Iran’s automotive sector and its trade in gold and precious metals, will be fully enforced “and we will work closely with nations conducting business with Iran to ensure complete compliance.”

All other U.S. sanctions against Iran were to be reimposed as of November 5, including measures against Iran’s oil and gas industry and transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran.

However, Akbar Komijani, deputy governor of Iran’s central bank, said the Iranian economy faced international constraints due to unfair sanctions before the nuclear deal, which brought a rational economic climate. The Iranian economy began to benefit from the deal even before it was officially signed, he said in a statement.

“Iran is committed to the rule of law in the face of U.S. contempt for diplomacy and legal obligations," Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said. "It’s imperative to counter its habit of violating international law."

Four of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members — Britain, China, France and Russia — plus Germany and the European Union stayed in the deal. The Security Council, the U.N.’s most powerful arm, unanimously endorsed it in a resolution.

The ICJ's ruling seemed likely to further inflame the Trump administration's disregard for the United Nations and other international organizations.

Last month, Bolton harshly condemned the International Criminal Court, or ICC, in another political broadside against a U.S.-led system of international rules, laws and order. Bolton's speech, “Protecting American Constitutionalism and Sovereignty from International Threats," reflected his longstanding hostility towards the ICC and its global jurisdiction.

The ICC, also based at The Hague, functions as a court of last resort among nations. It is the world’s first permanent international criminal court set up to prosecute individuals for the most serious crimes under international law — crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and aggression.

Bolton campaigned for decades to neutralize the ICC, which he regards as a threat because it might someday try to prosecute an American citizen, even though the United States has not joined the court. Most of the ICC’s prosecutions until now — and there have been only eight convictions in its 16-year history — were directed against Africans suspected of war crimes.

Trump has condemned international organizations such as the U.N., E.U., North Atlantic Treaty Organization and World Trade Organization. He took the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, U.N. Human Rights Council and Global Compact for Migration.

"This is a decision, frankly, that is 39 years overdue," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said of the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Amity Treaty at a televised news conference, where he called Iran's court case without merit.

"Iran has attempted to interfere with the sovereign rights of the United States to take lawful actions as necessary to protect our national security," said Pompeo. "And Iran is abusing the ICJ for political and propaganda purposes."

But by reneging on the nuclear deal, the Trump administration sought to apply maximum pressure on Tehran, which could lead to regime change. Pompeo said Iran’s ruling regime “must use Iran’s resources to help its citizens, not support terror and enrich the leadership.”