Iran, US clash at UN court over $2.8b in seized assets

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, on Sept 25, 2018.
President of Iran Hassan Rouhani addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, on Sept 25, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

THE HAGUE • The United States yesterday confronted Iran at the United Nations' top court over billions in frozen assets, in a case that could deepen the Trump administration's rift with international justice.

Iran had dragged the US before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in June 2016 to oppose a US Supreme Court ruling that US$2 billion (S$2.77 billion) in frozen assets should go to victims of terror attacks blamed on Teheran.

In calling on the court to reject Iran's suit, Mr Richard Visek, legal adviser to the US State Department, said: "The actions at the root of this case centre on Iran's support for international terrorism."

Yesterday's hearing of US objections against Iran's appeal came a week after the ICJ in a separate case ordered the US to ease sanctions reimposed after President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Both the assets and the sanctions cases are based on a 1955 Treaty of Amity between Washington and Teheran that predates Iran's Islamic revolution. Last Wednesday, the Trump administration announced it was not only tearing up the 1955 treaty but also that it was quitting the international accord relating to the UN top court's jurisdiction.

The ICJ was set up after World War II to rule on disputes between UN member states. Its rulings are binding but it has no power to enforce them.

At yesterday's hearing, a 15-judge Bench listened to the arguments by Washington's lawyers over whether the ICJ can take up the case under its strict rules governing its procedures.

The US Supreme Court ruled in April 2016 that US$2 billion in Iran's frozen assets must go to American victims of terror attacks. These included the 1983 bombing of a US Marine barracks in Beirut in which 241 soldiers were killed and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.


In total, the decision affects more than 1,000 Americans.

Teheran angrily accused Washington of breaking the 1955 treaty - even though it was signed at the time with the pro-US regime of the Shah - and called for the US "to make full reparations to Iran for the violation of its international legal obligations".

The Islamic republic said that because the US has maintained its designation of Iran as a major state sponsor of terrorism, its assets - including those of the central bank also known as Bank Markazi - have been "subjected to enforcement proceedings" in the US even if they should benefit from immunity under the 1955 treaty.

A decision by the ICJ's judges could take weeks or even months before being made public.

Iran won a shock victory last week when the ICJ ruled that the US must lift sanctions against Teheran targeting humanitarian goods such as food and medicine.

In response, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was terminating the 1955 friendship treaty.

Mr Trump's national security adviser John Bolton also announced that the US was pulling out of the 1961 Optional Protocol and Dispute Resolution of the Vienna Convention.

The protocol establishes the ICJ as the "compulsory jurisdiction" for disputes unless nations decide to settle them elsewhere.

The step also comes after the Palestinians went to the ICJ to challenge the US move of its Israel embassy to Jerusalem.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2018, with the headline 'Iran, US clash at UN court over $2.8b in seized assets'. Subscribe