The International Court of Justice has issued an interim order to the US to lift Iran sanctions linked to medicine, food and civil aviation, pending resolution of the Islamic Republic's case against it.
The decision on Wednesday is a provisional ruling designed to prevent irreparable harm to Iran, while the case is pending and does not foreshadow necessarily whether the ICJ will rule for the US or Iran.
In May, the US exited the 2015 nuclear deal
with Iran and set August and November deadlines for ramping up sanctions against Tehran.
On July 16, Iran sued the US before the ICJ, claiming that US actions violated a 1955 treaty of amity between the countries, and violated the 2015 deal and other international obligations.
The US has steadfastly argued that the ICJ has no jurisdiction over the dispute, and has focused on this in communications with the court.
Already in 1986, the US had withdrawn from the court’s compulsory jurisdiction, but the ICJ believes it can retain jurisdiction sometimes even against a state’s wishes, depending on which global agreements or issues are at play.
The order does not necessarily thwart broader US sanctions, and it is highly questionable whether the US will heed the order, as the ICJ has no enforcement arm.
On the other hand, the US told the ICJ prior to the decision that it was already voluntarily allowing humanitarian and civil aviation exceptions to its sanctions on Iran.
Responding to the ICJ ruling, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US would withdraw from the 1955 agreement with Iran to try to further undermine any case before the ICJ. In the past, the US used the treaty in its charges against Tehran, including the legal case it brought against the state during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979.
At the White House, National Security Adviser John Bolton called the ruling “a defeat for Iran” but nevertheless condemned the court for entertaining a case he characterized as political.
He said the US withdrawal from the 1955 treaty is an “important” step, and announced the Trump administration would begin reviewing similar treaties that could be used as the basis for future ICJ litigation.
Regarding the specific issue of any temporary sanctions relief relating to humanitarian issues, the US said that Iran could not prove irreparable harm, as it was primarily being harmed economically – which can be repaired.
In addition, the US said that there are multiple factors causing Iran’s economic problems, some even predating the sanctions, such that they cannot be isolated as the cause.
Also, the US said that with the EU publicly announcing major efforts to support Iran economically, it cannot be argued that Iran is experiencing irreparable harm or imminent collapse.
While the court weighed both sides and has not ruled on the broader question of the legality of US sanctions, it found that the current humanitarian risk to everyday Iranians overpowered the US defenses, indicating a temporary need for the US to relax aspects of its sanctions.
On the broader question of whether the US sanctions are legal, the court hinted that it might view them as problematic, depending on how it interprets the 1955 treaty and the 2015 deal.
It rejected the US argument that the 2015 deal excluded ICJ jurisdiction and trumped the 1955 deal, writing that the court could receive jurisdiction from multiple sources.
The ruling to ease sanctions was unanimous, with lead judge and ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf of Somalia presiding.Michael Wilner contributed to this story.
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