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United Nations’ court rules U.S. must allow humanitarian trade with Iran

Judges enter the International Court of Justice, or World Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, where they ruled on an Iranian request to order Washington to suspend U.S. sanctions against Tehran. (Peter Dejong/AP)

ISTANBUL — The United Nations’ highest court Wednesday ordered the United States to remove any restrictions on the export of humanitarian goods and services to Iran, granting Tehran a diplomatic victory after it challenged new U.S. sanctions in July.

The interim ruling by the International Court of Justice comes as the United States has sought to pressure Iran over what it says are “malign activities” in the Middle East, including support for militant proxies and its ballistic missile program.

The Trump administration in May withdrew from a 2015 nuclear deal the United States signed with Iran and other world powers, announcing renewed U.S. sanctions on dollar transactions, food exports and sales of aluminum and steel. Next month, new U.S. restrictions will target oil sales, Iran’s energy and shipping sectors and foreign financial institutions transacting with Iran’s Central Bank.

Under President Trump, United States-Iranian relations have taken a decisive turn for the worse. Here's a brief history of the tumultuous relationship. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Wednesday’s verdict is binding, but the court, located in The Hague, lacks the power to enforce its decisions, which are usually ignored by the United States anyway. Iran had argued that sanctions announced in May violated the 1955 Treaty of Amity between the United States and Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the directive “another failure” for the United States and a “victory for the rule of law.” It is “imperative for int’l community to collectively counter malign U.S. unilateralism,” Zarif said on Twitter.

Hours later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is terminating the Treaty of Amity, calling it an “absolute absurdity” given the tensions between the two countries.

“We ought to have pulled out of it decades ago,” Pompeo said, calling it “39 years overdue” in a reference to the 1979 revolution in Iran. “Today marked a useful point with the decision that was made this morning from the ICJ. This marked a useful point for us to demonstrate the absolute absurdity of the Treaty of Amity between the United States and the Islamic Republic.”

The 15-member panel of judges ruled that the United States “must remove” any impediments to the free exportation to Iran of goods required for humanitarian needs, as well as spare parts for civil aviation safety. The court said the assurances given by the United States that its sanctions would have limited humanitarian impact were “not adequate to address fully the humanitarian and safety concerns raised by” Iran.

The measures adopted by the United States, the court said, “may entail irreparable consequences.”

Pompeo took issue with the court’s ruling, which represented a moral victory for Iran.

“We’re disappointed that the court failed to recognize that it has no jurisdiction to issue any order relating to these sanctions measures with the United States, which is doing its work on Iran to protect its own essential security interests,” Pompeo said.

In an appearance at Wednesday’s White House press briefing, national security adviser John Bolton said Iran had “made a mockery” of the treaty.

“The Iranian regime has systematically pursued a policy of hostility toward the United States that defames the central premise of the Treaty of Amity,” he said. “The regime cannot practice animosity in its conduct, and then ask for amity under international law.”

He maintained the Trump administration’s policy is not regime change, “but we do expect substantial change in their behavior.”

Under the nuclear deal, Iran agreed to curb its atomic energy program in exchange for the lifting of major U.N. and some U.S. sanctions. That agreement permitted Iranian oil sales, halted penalties on European firms for doing business with Iran and allowed Iran to export things such as carpets, pistachios and other goods.

The Trump administration, however, has reimposed the most stringent of sanctions, as part of a tougher new policy on Iran.

On Wednesday, the ICJ President Abdulqawi Yusuf said the court’s order applies to medicines and medical devices; foodstuffs and agricultural commodities; and spare parts, equipment and repair services for civil aviation. The United States must also ensure that licenses and authorizations are granted and that payment for such goods and services are not subject to any restrictions.

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The United States “maintains broad authorizations and exceptions that allow for the sale of food, medicine and medical devices by U.S. persons or from the United States to Iran,” according to guidelines form the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions.

U.S. sanctions law is triggered, however, if a transaction involves U.S.-designated persons, such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps or a designated Iranian bank.

As a result, the private Iranian institutions that facilitate payments for humanitarian goods could be hindered by broader U.S. restrictions on both Iranian entities and the country’s banking sector.

It was unclear if Wednesday’s ruling would remove those obstacles in practice.

“Ambiguities about the scope of the returning restrictions . . . have left bank leaders and government officials in Iran with more questions than answers,” Tehran-based financial journalist, Maziar Motamedi, reported last month for the Iran-focused business website, Bourse & Bazaar.

“Even if food sales to Iran remain permitted under U.S. sanctions, the imposition of secondary sanctions on Iran’s private sector banks could make the trade effectively impossible,” Motamedi wrote.

Morello reported from Washington.

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