Terror victims' kin have no right to sue Iran in US courts, Zarif says

Despite improved US-Iran relations, the US Supreme Court this month gave a historic $2 billion victory to the families of Americans killed in attacks blamed on Iran.

April 29, 2016 18:00
3 minute read.
Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks at Chatham House in London

Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks at Chatham House in London. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Anti-Iran litigation in American civil courts that have paved the way for rulings in favor of terrorism victims’ families are antithetical to international law, the Islamic Republic’s top diplomat said on Friday.

In a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, wrote that the United States “has persistently engaged in a dangerous practice of defying international law and order by allowing, in fact instigating, private litigants to bring civil action before US domestic courts against sovereign states, including the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

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Despite improved US-Iran relations, the US Supreme Court this month gave a historic $2 billion victory to the families of Americans killed in attacks blamed on Iran.

At its January hearing on the issue, the US Supreme Court seemed to be seriously entertaining allowing around $2 billion in frozen of Iranian Bank Markazi's funds to go to the families, but the 6-2 vote in favor made that possibility, which risks major tensions in bilateral relations between the two governments who had just concluded a deal on Iran's nuclear program, a reality. 

The court's decision was a rejection of an appeal brought by Bank Markazi, Iran's central bank, contesting a 2014 lower-court ruling that stated the money should be handed over to plaintiffs representing hundreds of Americans killed or injured in the 1983 bombing of a US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, the 1996 Khobar Towers truck bombing in Saudi Arabia, suicide bombings in Israel and other attacks.

The money would go toward satisfying a $2.65 billion judgment against Iran that the families won in US federal court in 2007 in a case filed in 2001. The money is held in New York in a trust account at Citibank, part of Citigroup Inc, but was not fully discovered until 2008-2010.

At issue before the justices was whether Congress violated the separation of powers principle enshrined in the US Constitution by passing the law that specified the funds held in the trust account go toward paying off the judgment.


“Knowing full well that no self-respecting nation, certainly not Iran, would ever subject itself to the jurisdiction of another state’s domestic courts, they have amassed billions of dollars in unlawful and factually flawed default judgements against the Islamic Republic of Iran and its organs,” Zarif wrote in his letter to Ban.

The foreign minister specifically cited a recent court case which determined that Iran played a role in the attacks of September 11, 2001 – this despite the fact that the hijackers of the four airliners were from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“The veracity and credibility of the US justice system - when it comes to its treatment of Iran - can be measured by the recent ruling of a New York District Court that ordered Iran to pay more than $10.5 billion in damages to the families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, claiming against all evidence and common sense that Iran ‘provided active support to the attackers’,” Zarif wrote.

“Such absurd allegations - not by a politician but regrettably by a so-called court of law - contradicts even public statements as well as findings - open or sealed - of investigations by the US government and US Congress.”

Zarif said that US civil courts do not have legal jurisdiction to hear cases against sovereign states since it flies in the face of the principle of immunity – a concept enshrined in international law.

“It is a matter of grave concern that the United States Congress, along with other branches of the US government, seem to believe that they can easily defy and breach the fundamental principle of state immunity, by unilaterally waiving the immunity of states and even central banks in total contravention of the international obligations of the United States and under a groundless legal doctrine that the international community does not recognize,” the foreign minister wrote.

Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.

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