The US State Department responded by rejecting the ruling, which demanded the suspension of any sanctions that impede humanitarian goods and services including aviation safety equipment.
The International Court of Justice has no mechanism by which to actually enforce the judgment if the US fails to comply, although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that existing sanctions laws already make relevant exceptions for items like food and medicine.
Pompeo also said that the US was cancelling the treaty in order to forestall any further legal judgments stemming from an agreement that long preceded the 1979 Iranian revolution, which turned the countries into bitter enemies. He accordingly described the move as being long overdue. Nonetheless, the US’s extrication from the treaty will take approximately a year, and in the meantime the US will face at least one more judgement in the ICJ that is based on a case initiated by Iran in line with the Amity Treaty.
Reuters reported on Monday that lawyers representing the US had asked the court to dismiss the Islamic Republic’s efforts to recovered 1.75 billion dollars’ worth of Iranian assets that were seized as a result of a ruling by the US Supreme Court involving Iran’s historical support for international terrorism. That 2016 ruling initiated the appropriation of the money as payment of damages for victims of Iran-backed incidents like the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Iran argues that this judgment, like current sanctions, violates the 1955 treaty.
Richard Visek, a legal advisor to the State Department, cited Iran’s ongoing support for terrorism when explaining the American request for the case to be tossed out. But a day before that request was issued, the Iranian parliament undertook what might be regarded as an effort to strengthen the country’s defense on issues related to international terrorism. The Associated Press reported on Sunday that a narrow minority of Iranian lawmakers – 143 out of 258 – voted to join an international convention for Combating the Financing of Terrorism.
In theory, Iran’s status as a signatory to that convention would prompt a change in its policies regarding various militant proxies including Lebanese Hezbollah and armed Palestinian groups. But as the AP report points out, it is unlikely to have any such effect in actual practice.
Tehran has a longstanding habit of applying the “terrorist” label to regional non-state actors that it opposes, such as Syrian rebel groups, while withholding it from militant groups that enjoy Iranian backing, such as Shiite paramilitaries in Syrian and Iraq, as well as the Houthi rebel group in Yemen.
Insofar as there is no sign that Sunday’s vote coincides with a change of policy with regard to any such groups, it stands to reason that the intended purpose of Iran’s participation in the CFT is only to influence public relations while giving some sense of legitimacy to the Iranian regime’s self-professed role as an opponent of terrorism in the Middle East. But Tehran also has a long history of violating the principles expressed by conventions in which it is technically a participant.
This fact was underscored once again last week by the execution of Zeinab Sekaanvand, a 24-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who had been convicted of the murder of her husband when she was just 17 years old. Human rights organizations disputed the fairness of her trial as well as emphasizing the fact that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child both ban the execution of anyone who was under the age of 18 at the time of their crime.
Despite Iran’s status as a signatory to both those agreements, Sekaanvand was at least the fifth such individual to be executed by the Islamic Republic this year. On Friday, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the execution on that basis and on the basis of the defendant’s overall mistreatment.
In view of Iran’s unserious approach to international agreements in the past, one might expect that there will be substantial doubt about the significance of Tehran joining the CFT. And at least in the short term, this doubt will be amplified by the nature of Iran’s theocratic system, which allows the unelected Guardian Council or the clerical supreme leader to override parliamentary decisions, especially if they are deemed to be out of step with the regime’s interpretation of Islamic law.
Those authorities may yet cancel Iran’s membership in the CFT, or else codify the selective application of its principles, as by highlighting perceived differences between “terrorism” and “resistance to foreign occupation”. On Monday, the Media Research Center pointed to instances of Iran, along with Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, emphasizing this vague distinction in remarks before the UN General Assembly last week. The potential impact of those remarks on Iran’s application of CFT principles is made clearer by the fact that Iranian officials frequently characterize domestic strife as being rooted in foreign plots.
Last month, ISIL and Iranian Arab separatists simultaneously claimed responsibility for an attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, which killed two dozen people.
But Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other prominent figures quickly placed the blame for that attack on a “triangle” of enemies consisting of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, claiming without evidence that the relevant terrorist groups had backing from these countries. An Iranian missile strike on terrorists in eastern Syria on October 1 was explicitly described as a warning to those foreign “enemies”.
The strike was also an apparent sign of Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, which is staunchly opposed by those same “enemies”. White House National Security Advisor John Bolton recently reiterated that American troops will remain in Syria until Iranian forces depart.
Bolton added that this goal extends to both the IRGC and the proxy militias that have proliferated in both Syria and Iraq. True to form, the Islamic Republic tends to characterize those proxies as fighting terrorism, but most other countries regard them as terrorist groups in their own right, often explicitly modeled on Hezbollah.
It remains to be seen whether Iran’s efforts to sanitize the image of those proxies will be taken seriously by international authorities, and whether the vote to join the CFT will influence the perception of those authorities.
The judgment by the International Court of Justice in the pending case against American seizure of Iranian assets may represent a test case. But as Reuters reports, although hearings at The Hague will continue through Friday, it is yet to be determined when the court will rule.