By Mahmoud Hakamian
On Wednesday, the United Nations’ highest court made a preliminary ruling in a lawsuit initiated by Iran in July against the United States.
The suit alleged that US sanctions, which strengthened significantly in August, 90 days after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, were illegal under the Treaty of Amity signed between Iran and the US in 1955, long before the Islamist takeover of Iranian government.
A second round of sanctions that were suspended under the nuclear deal is set to go back into effect on November 4, with the express intention of cutting off Iranian oil from most world markets.
The decision of the International Court of Justice has no serious bearing on that goal, but it theoretically relevant to both rounds of re-imposed sanctions. As explained in a report by the Washington Post, the ruling ordered that the US must remove or avoid any sanctions that restrict Iran’s access to humanitarian goods and services, including food staples and medical necessities.
However, the same report also notes that the ICJ wields no actual power to enforce its ruling, making the judgment little more than a diplomatic victory for Iran.
What’s more, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo endeavored to spin the assessment of the ruling’s impact, calling it a defeat rather than a victory for the Islamic Republic.
The ruling prompted the State Department to cancel the relevant 1955 treaty, a move that Pompeo said should have been undertaken nearly 40 years ago in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran.
As it stands, the treaty’s practical significance has been very limited over the course of those four decades. The hostage crisis marked the end of diplomatic relations between the two countries, effectively nullifying the treaty’s mutual safeguards on consular rights.
Other provisions of the treaty concern trade between the two countries, but this has remained practically non-existent, even while the US was still a party to the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Agence France Presse notes that because of these longstanding conditions, there will be little actual effect from the State Department’s announcement of American withdrawal from the Treaty of Amity. But the move may forestall further Iranian challenges to current and forthcoming sanctions, thereby robbing Tehran of additional “diplomatic victories”.
The treaty has previously been cited in multiple court cases between the two countries, but as in the current case, judgments have been unenforced and largely ignored by the losing party.
Pompeo did, however, say of the latest judgment that the US was “disappointed” with the ICJ’s judgement. He also dismissed Iran’s initiation of that case as frivolous, saying according to CBS News: “Iran has attempted to interfere with the sovereign rights of the United States to take lawful actions as necessary to protect our national security and Iran is abusing the ICJ for political and propaganda purposes.”
“Given Iran's history of terrorism, ballistic missile activity and other malign behaviors, Iran's claims under the treaty are absurd,” he added. But Pompeo also dismissed the ICJ’s ruling as redundant, noting that the American sanctions laws already make exceptions on humanitarian grounds.
Such claims cast doubt upon the theoretical effect of the ruling even in the event that the ICJ was able to enforce it. However, it appears that the scope of humanitarian exceptions for the court would be greater than those defined by the US government.
Makers of commercial aircraft and replacement equipment were among the few American businesses to attempt reentry into Iranian markets following the implementation of the JCPOA, and these would-be transactions were aggressively targeted by the Trump administration as it sought to extricate the US from the agreement and impose maximal pressure on the Islamic Republic.
But as the Washington Post pointed out, the 15-judge panel included civil aviation safety within the broader category of humanitarian needs for which the US should remove impediments.
The same report goes on to note that even if primary sanctions on the Islamic Republic comply with the UN-recommended restrictions, certain relevant goods could still be prevented from entering Iranian markets because “the imposition of secondary sanctions on Iran’s private sector banks could make the trade effectively impossible.”
It is precisely these secondary sanctions that stand to go back into effect in November, applying penalties to businesses in Europe and throughout the world that engage in trade with targeted Iranian entities. Additionally, several legitimately targeted entities such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have an active hand in numerous different sectors of the Iranian economy.
This speaks to additional criticisms that were levied by Secretary of State Pompeo in the wake of the ICJ ruling. Reuters quoted him as saying that the Iranian regime and its hardline institutions are squandering the wealth of the Iranian people, focusing on priorities like regional interference and ballistic missile development to the exclusion of some of the essential needs of the domestic population.
In this sense, Pompeo and other Trump administration officials have sought to portray themselves as defenders of Iran’s humanitarian interests while placing the blame for worsening socio-economic conditions squarely on the shoulders of the mullahs.
Crucially, Iran’s activist community seems to fully agree with this assessment, as evidenced by the past several months of anti-government protests, largely stemming from a mass uprising in December and January that was initially focused on worsening economic indicators.
The tone of that uprising and subsequent protests quickly became more political, however, with participants chanting provocative slogans like “death to the dictator” and “death to [President] Rouhani”.
The White House has repeatedly expressed support for those demonstrations while describing the Iranian people as the “longest suffering victims” of the clerical regime. And although the administration denies any intention to facilitate regime change, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani spoke to a gathering of Iranian expatriates last week and said of the mullahs, “They are going to be overthrown.
The people of Iran obviously have had enough.”
Giuliani and National Security Advisor John Bolton have both spoken at the annual summer rallies of the National Council of Resistance of Iran outside Paris, and Bolton has used those speeches to insist that “the declared policy of the United States should be regime change in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
In his White House office, Bolton has publicly supported the more measured goals of the Trump administration, but he has also contributed greatly to that administration’s assertiveness in dealing with Iran, addressing the Iranian leadership last week at a summit organized by United Against a Nuclear Iran to say, “If you cross us, our allies or our partners, if you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.”
This was widely viewed as one in a series of “tense turns” in US-Iran relations – language that Defense News applied on Wednesday both to Pompeo’s withdrawal from the Treaty of Amity and to his apparent threat of reprisal against “any harm to Americans or our diplomatic facilities whether perpetrated by Iranian forces or by associated proxies of elements of those militias.”
Of course, Iran has contributed its own escalations in the ongoing “war of words” between the two governments, and statements by Iranian military and political officials have sometimes clearly underscored the reality of the threats that Pompeo warned against.
The regime’s anti-Western rhetoric has been particularly pronounced in the wake of the September 22 attack on an IRGC-led military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, which officials blamed on the US, Israel, and regional Arab countries, without citing any evidence to support the allegation.
On Monday, the IRGC launched missile and drone strikes on what it claimed were terrorist assets in eastern Syria, but much of the media coverage of that incident described it as intending to send a message to Western adversaries.
By Wednesday, the Iranian regime had effectively dropped the pretense of calling that strike retaliation against the Ahvaz terrorists, suggesting instead that the missile launch was motivated at least in part by John Bolton’s UANI speech.
Newsweek quoted Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, as saying, “John Bolton said we should take you seriously; [Amir Ali] Hajizadeh, commander of the Aerospace Forces, took you seriously and landed a rocket within three miles of you.” The remark was made in reference to the fact that US military forces were within three miles of the strike zone on Monday.
While the proximity of that strike highlights the possibility of Iran’s military or paramilitary forces striking out against Western personnel or allies directly, a report at Business Insider noted that those Iranian forces remain reliant on outmoded and unreliable military technology in the midst of an internationally enforced arms embargo. But this unreliability may actually increase the potential for Iran to escalate tensions through miscalculation or error.
The report pointed out that at least one of the missiles fired in Monday’s strike failed to reach its target, instead crash landing on a farm inside Iran’s borders. IRGC officers had previously boasted of the relevant missiles’ range, but the misfire theoretically makes anything within that more than 700 mile range the target of either intentional or unintentional attack.
So far, however, each Iranian escalation has been clearly intentional, including missile threats, the ICJ lawsuit, and terror plots targeting the regime’s enemies within Western territory. An editorial published on Wednesday by UPI characterized many of these escalations as part of an effort to “divert attention” away from the regime’s own corruption and its adverse impact on the Iranian people.
And although early assessments of the ICJ ruling suggest it as advancing this goal, it is clear that the White House is already responding with further efforts to highlight that which Tehran is working to conceal.