Does the International Court of Justice Have Jurisdiction over Iran’s Claim Against the U.S? Actually, Maybe It Does
After about two months of public statements threatening to take the U.S. to the International Court of Justice over frozen Iranian assets, Iran finally instituted ICJ proceedings yesterday under the 1955 U.S.-Iran Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights. Iran alleges in its complaint that the U.S. has violated the treaty’s obligations by taking Iranian government assets and redistributing them to families of U.S. marines killed in the 1983 Beirut bombing. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a 2012 congressional statute authorizing the seizure of Iranian government assets for distribution to the plaintiffs.
Iran argues that the U.S. government violated the 1955 Treaty in numerous ways by its failure to recognize the separate legal identity of the Iranian Central Bank and other state-owned companies and its failure to provide protection for such property as required by international law. Iran further alleges that the U.S. conducted an expropriation of Iranian assets, while also denying access for those legal entities in US. court, while at the same time failing to respect their sovereign immunity, as well as other treaty violations.
Under paragraph 2 of Article 21 of the Treaty,
Any dispute between the High Contracting Parties as to the interpretation or application of the present Treaty, not satisfactorily adjusted by diplomacy, shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice, unless the High Contracting Parties agree to settlement by some other pacific means.
I have previously tweeted on more than one occasion that the ICJ would have no jurisdiction, but I had forgotten about this provision (luckily someone reminded me on Twittter). Believe it or not, Article 21 of the U.S-Iran Friendship Treaty has already been the basis for two prior ICJ proceedings: the U.S. case against Iran’s seizure of the U.S. embassy and its personnel (1979) and the Iranian case against U.S. actions against its Iranian oil platforms in 1992. So it is clear that Article 21(2) is a legitimate basis for jurisdiction, and the ICJ held in both prior cases that this provision conferred jurisdiction upon it.
On the other hand, Article 21 limits a party’s claim to a “dispute…as to the interpretation or application of the present Treaty.” This means Iran will have to limit its claim to violations of the treaty, rather than violations of general international law. This is harder than it looks. In the 2003 Oil Platforms judgment, the ICJ found that it had jurisdiction, and that U.S. attacks on the oil platforms were not justified on self defense. The ICJ nonetheless found that Iran’s claim that U.S. attacks on its oil platforms did not breach the “freedom of commerce” between the two nations, since no such commerce in oil was occurring at that time. So the U.S. lost on jurisdiction, but won on the merits.
So I am going to reverse my earlier views and tentatively guess that the ICJ will find that it has jurisdiction over this case. In particular, I think Iran will have a good argument that Article IV(2), which requires the U.S. give Iranian nationals’ property “the most constant protection and security within the territories of the other High Contracting Party, in no case less than that required by international law….” (emphasis added). I am not sure Iran is right that the U.S. violated Article IV(2), but I think Iran has a plausible argument that it could have been violated. That should be enough for jurisdiction.
I nonetheless expect the U.S. government to make a big fight over jurisdiction and admissibility. Even if it loses, the U.S. can slow down these proceedings tremendously by battling over jurisdiction and narrowing which claims Iran can bring forward. This strategy worked very well in the Oil Platforms case. Iran filed the proceedings in 1992. The ICJ did not issue an determination on jurisdiction until 1996. The ICJ then took another seven years to finally issue a judgment on the merits in 2003 (which the U.S. won anyway). With any luck, the U.S. could avoid a merits judgment here until 2027.
I think this case might move along more briskly, but it will still take a while. And I think the slow wheels of international justice might work out for both sides here. Iran’s leaders can say they are doing something, but it will not result in any immediate judgment that will put the U.S. on the spot. The U.S. can drag this out, and it might even prevail on the merits (I have no strong opinion on that complex issue yet).
I do not expect the U.S., however, to boycott of the entire proceedings, as China has been doing in the Philippines South China Sea arbitration. For one thing, there is really no need, as I explained above, since we could be in for a 10 year wait for a judgment. For another, the U.S. needs to show that it plays nice with international law and courts to bolster its own calls on China to abide by the South China Sea arbitration.