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Iran Takes US to the ICJ

July 18, 2018 | Expert Insights

Iran has lodged a complaint with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against the United States' reimposition of sanctions. 

The US breached the terms of the agreement that was intended to limit Iran’s nuclear programme, when they withdrew in 2018. 


Iran’s nuclear program was first launched in the 1950s, with help from the United States. Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970. Support from the West continued until the Iranian Revolution and the ascent of Ayatollah Khomeini into power in 1979. Iran’s nuclear program has been a source of concern for the international community since then.  

During the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) investigations in the country, it was revealed that Iran had not declared a number of its nuclear activities and was not in compliance with the NPT. In 2006, the country also refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The UN consequently imposed a number of sanctions on the nation. By 2015, the nation had lost billions of dollars due to these sanctions; an estimated $100 billion in oil revenue alone. 

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a comprehensive agreement between the P5+1 countries (France, China, Russia, US, UK, and Germany), EU and Iran to prevent nuclear arms development in Iran in exchange for removal of sanctions. October of 2025 was chosen as the Termination Day.  

Under the JCPOA, Iran will have to reduce their stockpile of enriched Uranium by 97% and undertake enrichment only at Naantz. The Plutonium enrichment core at Arak would have to be dismantled. A 5-year heavy arms embargo and an 8-year ballistic missile embargo would remain in place. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would conduct routine checks to keep track of Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions on Iranian oil, banking, and financial sectors would be lifted.  

The Trump administration ​withdrew​ from the deal in May 2018, which led to the imposition of secondary sanctions which target international banks that conduct business with Iran’s oil sector.  


President Trump’s withdrawal does not threaten the existence of the deal as the EU has signalled its commitment to the deal if Iran continued to adhere to the requirements. It was formally endorsed by the UN Security Council, incorporating it into international law. Iran has, thus far, been in full compliance, according to the IAEA. Recently, they have boosted enrichment within the limitations.  

“Iran is committed to the rule of law in the face of the US contempt for diplomacy and legal obligations. It's imperative to counter its habit of violating international law,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. 

Sanctions will be reimposed by Washington in two phases in August and November, seeking to bar foreign companies from doing business with Iran and blocking its oil sales abroad. Aircraft manufacturers like Boeing will lose billions in contracts due to sanctions on Iranian banks. French oil company Total is set to leave Iran, after investing nearly $5 billion in a 20-year agreement, if sanctions are not withdrawn. 

The EU has remained committed to the Iran Deal. The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, has initiated plans to activate the ‘blocking statute’ - legislation that seeks to shield EU companies that continue doing business with Iran, and gives them a framework to recover any damages suffered as a result of US sanctions. The statute essentially prohibits EU persons from complying with US extraterritorial sanctions.  

"We are all in this together, since the EU is facing a net loss of $11.7 billion in lost trade with Iran next year," Austrian ambassador Stefan Scholz, whose country currently holds the presidency of the EU said. 

To make up for losses suffered as a result of the US sanctions, Iran is looking at other countries as potential export partners, including a deal that could potentially be worth $50bn with Russia, and trade with local currency over the US dollar. However, effects of the sanctions have already taken root as the Rial has depreciated and crude oil prices have dropped to their lowest. 

The International Court of Justice, the UN’s principle judicial organ, is set to review the ‘Certain Iran Assets Case’ regarding the US Supreme Court ruling for $2 billion in frozen Iranian assets to be paid to victims of attacks blamed on Iran. Iran claims the US ruling will be in violation of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, which was signed during reign of Shah Pahlavi, and the Algiers Accords, signed after the Iranian Revolution. 


Iran’s claims fall within the jurisdiction of Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal and the JCPOA Dispute Settlement Mechanism, thereby removing them from the ICJ’s jurisdiction. The Tribunal decides whether it has jurisdiction, given that Iran and the US authorized the Tribunal to interpret and apply the Algiers Accords, which involve forward-looking obligations such as a prohibition on the United States from interfering in Iran’s internal affairs. 


Our assessment is that the US is in violation of the Algiers Accords as President Trump has called for regime change in Iran. We believe that the signatories of the JCPOA should enforce the agreement’s provision to settle disputes instead of approaching the ICJ. We feel that reimposition of US sanctions will be counterproductive as Iran could trigger multiple conflicts in the Persian Gulf.