A top UN court just told the US to lift some sanctions on Iran

The UN’s top court ruled on Wednesday that the United States must ease its sanctions on Iran for humanitarian reasons, a month before the administration planned to reimpose some of the most stringent sanctions on Tehran.

The decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), located in the Netherlands, mandates that the US not restrict exports to Iran of food, medicine, and parts to make civil aviation safer because doing so threatens the lives of everyday citizens there. President Donald Trump had announced the reimposition of economic sanctions back in May when he withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal.

The court’s ruling is binding, but it’s unlikely the US will abide by the mandate for three reasons.

First, the ICJ has no way to force America to comply, which means the US can willfully ignore the decision with no legal repercussions.

Second, following the decision would undercut the Trump administration’s goal. It wants to squeeze Tehran financially so the country stops acting so aggressively in the Middle East, like supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad militarily and meddling in Iraq’s domestic politics.

And third, the White House has already expressed deep skepticism toward the authority of international courts. In September, National Security Adviser John Bolton openly lambasted the International Criminal Court — a separate and unconnected body from the ICJ — for attempts to investigate the US for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, and for considering an investigation of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

But Iran still took the ruling as a victory: it “vindicates the Islamic Republic of Iran and confirms the illegitimacy and oppressiveness” of the United States, Iran’s foreign ministry said in a Wednesday statement. US Ambassador to the Netherlands Pete Hoekstra, though, tweeted that “this is a meritless case over which the court has no jurisdiction.”

What each side argued

The job of the ICJ, which started its work in 1946, is “to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized United Nations organs and specialized agencies,” according to the court’s website.

Iran, which has previously ignored the court’s rulings, went to the ICJ in July because it formally complained and argued it had a case against the United States.

Iran claimed that it had not violated the terms of the nuclear deal, as repeatedly certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog. The country also argued the US sanctions violated the 1955 Treaty of Amity between Washington and Tehran, which regulates ties, including economic ones, between the two countries. The treaty, Iran said, gave the ICJ jurisdiction over the case.

After the decision, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the US would terminate the agreement. “This is a decision frankly that is 39 years overdue,” he said.

America’s defense was that the ICJ had no jurisdiction over the issue and therefore had no authority to rule.

Obviously, the court felt it could — and ruled in favor of Iran for now. The US will surely appeal the decision in a future case. But it goes to show that one of the world’s leading legal bodies is concerned that Trump’s policy decision may threaten the lives of people in Iran, and wants the US to reverse course.