The U.N.’s top court ordered the United States on Wednesday to lift sanctions on humanitarian goods for Iran in a stunning setback for U.S. President Donald Trump.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague handed Iran a major victory, saying that the stinging economic sanctions put Iranian lives at risk.
The ruling is likely to rile Trump, who re-imposed the sanctions in May after pulling out of Iran’s international nuclear deal to the dismay of his allies. But it was unclear whether the judgment will be anything more than symbolic, because both Washington and Tehran have ignored them in the past.
The ICJ judges ruled that the sanctions on some goods breached a 1955 “Treaty of Amity” between Iran and the U.S. that predates Iran’s Islamic Revolution. “The court finds unanimously that… the United States of America… shall remove by means of its choosing any impediments arising from the measures announced on 8 May to the free exportation to Iran of medicines and medical devices, food and agricultural commodities” as well as airplane parts, chief judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said.
The court said sanctions on goods “required for humanitarian needs… may have a serious detrimental impact on the health and lives of individuals on the territory of Iran.” U.S. sanctions also had the “potential to endanger civil aviation safety in Iran and the lives of its users.”
Iran’s foreign ministry hailed the shock judgment as proof that Tehran was “in the right.”
Ahead of the decision, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that the sanctions were a form of “psychological warfare” aimed at regime change.
Trump slapped a first round of sanctions on Iran in August after pulling out in May of the international deal aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, to the dismay of his European allies. A second round of punitive measures is due in November. Iran dragged the U.S. to the ICJ in July, and during four days of hearings in late August, its lawyers accused Washington of “strangling” its economy. Washington however forcefully told the court that it has no jurisdiction to rule on this case as it concerns a matter of national security.
Wednesday’s ruling is in fact a decision on so-called provisional measures ahead of a final decision on the matter, which may take several more years, experts said. Rulings by the Hague-based ICJ, which rules on disputes between United Nations members are binding but it has no mechanism through which it can enforce its decisions.
In 1986 Washington disregarded the court’s finding that it had violated international law by supporting the pro-U.S. Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Iran in turn ignored the ICJ’s ruling in 1980 to release hostages taken during the Iran hostage crisis.
There was no immediate reaction from the United States, but Trump has previously shown his disdain for overarching international organizations that limit U.S. sovereignty, including the U.N. He recently heavily criticized the separate International Criminal Court in The Hague over a probe into alleged U.S. abuses in Afghanistan.
The 2015 nuclear deal saw Iran agree to limit its nuclear program and let in international inspectors in return for an end to years of sanctions by the West. But Trump argues that funds from the lifting of sanctions under the pact have been used to support terrorism and build nuclear-capable missiles.
European allies have pledged to keep the deal alive, with plans for a mechanism to let firms skirt the U.S. sanctions as they do business with Iran.
Despite that, France alleged on Tuesday that the Iranian intelligence ministry was behind a foiled plot to bomb an exiled opposition group near Paris.
U.S.-Iran relations have plunged to a new low since Trump’s election in 2016, even as the U.S. president reaches out to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un over his nuclear program.
Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faced off at the U.N. in September, with Rouhani denouncing leaders with “xenophobic tendencies resembling a Nazi disposition.”
Despite their 1955 Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations, Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic ties since 1980. The case is the second brought by Tehran against Washington since 2016. That year it brought a suit at the ICJ against the freezing of around $2 billion of Iranian assets abroad which U.S. courts say should go to American victims of terror attacks.
Hearings in that case are due to start next week.