By Edward Carney
On Monday, the Islamic Republic of Iran announced its intentions to file suit against the United States over what it says are illegal sanctions that have contributed to the country’s runaway inflation and other deteriorating economic indicators. The initial legal action will be taken within Iran’s domestic courts and as such will be an almost entirely symbolic gesture targeting “those in America who designed and imposed sanctions on Iran.” But President Hassan Rouhani indicated that the domestic lawsuit is meant to serve as a precursor to a challenge in international court.
Even if the Iranian regime follows through on this plan, though, any resulting decision against the US would also be little more than symbolic, given the substantial limits on enforcement power for the International Court of Justice. That court previously ruled in Tehran’s favor in response to allegations that US sanctions violated a treaty between the two countries that dates to more than two decades before the Iranian Revolution brought the current regime to power. But the victory was a modest one, with the court only ordering that the relevant sanctions should be structured in a way that did not affect the import of humanitarian and medical goods.
Apart from rejecting the judgement itself, the US government insisted that it was already voluntarily complying with these restrictions. Still, from Iran’s perspective, the value of the decision and of the trial itself presumably lay in its prospective impact on international perceptions regarding the legitimacy of Iran’s grievances. Toward that end, the regime has acquired a substantial record of using domestic and international litigation as a means of expressing those grievances while at the same time rejecting as illegitimate or politically motivated any lawsuits that are filed against the Islamic Republic or its citizens.
In 2017 and 2018, for instance, Iranian officials publicly rejected judgments by a Canadian and an American court, respectively, which both affirmed the right of victims’ families to recover money from Iranian assets as compensatory and punitive damages for instances of Iran-backed terrorism. The Iranians declared these judgements to be in violation of the principle of sovereign immunity, but Western judges have determined that that principle may be suspended in limited circumstances, including in the case of terrorism that is attributable to the given state.
Furthermore, Iran has sought to undermine terrorism-related judgements not only against handlers and financiers within the ranks of the government, but also those that seek to punish individual perpetrators. Somewhat ironically, the latest example of this phenomenon emerged just a day before the regime announced its plans to sue the US. According to Reuters, Tehran recalled its ambassador to Kenya on Sunday because a court in that country upheld 15-year sentences against two men with alleged connections to the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps who had been found in possession of 15 kilograms of military-grade explosives, which they planned to utilize in terrorist bombings.
The Reuters report indicated that the 2012 case “raised concerns about possible Iranian plans to strike targets in the east African nation.” And since that time, similar concerns have spread to encompass much of Europe and North America, with several attacks having been thwarted across the West in 2018 alone. Among these was a plot to set off explosives at the annual rally of Iranian expatriates organized near Paris by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, as well as prospective attacks on Jewish groups and activists of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran who had been surveilled by Iranian agents inside the United States.
The latter spying operation was highlighted by Yahoo News on Monday in a report that explained how the Islamic Republic is actively preparing for terrorist attacks in response to escalating tensions and the sporadic suggestions that bilateral conflict may be on the horizon. The article added that this type of terrorist planning is unique to Iranian intelligence services. That is to say, while virtually all nations engage in the practice of preparing “target packages,” Iran is perhaps the only sovereign nation for which these packages cannot be assumed to relate to conventional warfare.
These observations underscore the Islamic Republic’s status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. And last year’s explicit threats in turn suggest that the most recently assembled target packages may convey credible threats of their own. Indeed, the Yahoo article quoted a former senior US official as saying that the terrorist activities outlined in those packages were not merely theoretical. “These were cases where people had been assigned; plane tickets were purchased; weapons caches were in place. Plans were being activated. It had moved long past the written description.”
The article concluded by noting that the Iranian regime has been actively telegraphing its intentions, including its intention to use terrorism in the event that tensions continue to escalate with the US and with the West as a whole. But of course Tehran’s transparency on this matter only invites further escalation, especially considering that the regime’s intentions are expressed not only through harsh words but also through actions that threaten harm against Western lives and property.
As an example of the regime’s verbal propaganda, Newsweek quoted President Rouhani as telling a television audience to “put all your curses on those who created the current situation,” in reference to an economic decline that Tehran blames on the US and other adversaries. The same article recalled attention to earlier instances of “harsh rhetoric” used by Iranian officials, including Rouhani’s declaration that “war with Iran is the mother of all wars” and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s prediction that the US government would suffer an “unprecedented” defeat at the hands of the Islamic Republic.
It is not entirely clear whether the international impact of this sort of rhetoric will cut against the regime’s strategy of initiating lawsuits and otherwise utilizing formal international channels to express grievances related to its Western adversaries. Threatening language is undoubtedly ill-received on the global stage, but the recent policies of European governments suggest that there may be a high degree of tolerance extended to the regime as policymakers work to preserve the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which the White House withdrew last year to set the stage for re-imposed sanctions.
On one hand, the European Union has roundly criticized Tehran’s ongoing ballistic missile development and has imposed sanctions on the Iranian intelligence service and some of its known agents, in relation to last year’s terror threats. But on the other hand, neither of these points of contention have prevented the European signatories to the nuclear deal from putting into place a payment system that is meant to circumvent US sanctions, and the European penalties for Iranian terrorism came into force only after extensive lobbying by certain aggrieved parties.
In this sense, the collective response to Iranian rhetoric may depend to a great extent upon how much the international community expects that rhetoric to be reflected in actual foreign policy activities. The White House, among other opponents of the Iranian regime, is certainly working to convey the message that there are serious terror threats to be addressed, but it seems apparent that there is still work to be done if that message is to be broadly accepted.
Last week, the European Union declined to extend terrorist designation to the entirety of the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah. Britain had previously made the contrary decision, imposing economic sanctions on the organization earlier in March. But it is only the second EU country to do so, after the Netherlands, which was the site of both attempted and successful assassinations of Iranian opposition figures in years past.
The EU’s failure to follow the lead of these two nations was harshly criticized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and two scholars with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies were quoted as saying that much of the European establishment “remains wedded to various fictions about the nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah.”
These “fictions,” namely the claim of factional or organizational divisions within the Iranian regime and Hezbollah’s leadership, are arguably perpetuated by Iran’s own international propaganda, and specifically by its efforts to portray itself as a victim of aggressive and unjustified foreign pressures. At the same time, the message is undermined by the regime’s activities both at home and abroad, and by its blanket rejection of international standards relating to terrorist financing, money laundering, human rights, and so on.
In February, the Islamic Republic was granted an extension after its government failed to agree on legislation that would bring it into compliance with the anti-money laundering standards of the Financial Action Task Force. Hardline officials including the supreme leader have opposed that legislation in large part because of the adverse effect it would have on the regime’s financial support of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.
It is therefore doubtful that Tehran will adopt the relevant rules before the new June deadline.
Meanwhile, even as the regime works to avoid the global alienation that might follow its rejection FATF compliance, it is doing little to counter the public relations effect of reports and calls to action by international human rights advocates.
This month has seen the release of statements highlighting a crackdown on dissent that has been ongoing since the outbreak of nationwide anti-government protests at the end of 2017, and condemnation of that phenomenon has only grown since last week’s announcement that a 33-year sentence had been passed on the renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. Iran is a signatory to multiple international human rights documents, but has repeatedly and explicitly rejected the codified standards in practice.