Tensions Between Tehran and Washington Escalate After Recent ICJ Ruling

On October 3, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) made a historic ruling in the case Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America, ruling that U.S. sanctions on Iran must exempt humanitarian goods.  The case was brought before the United Nations judicial body by Iran in July, in which Iran argued that U.S. sanctions violated the 1955 Treaty of Amity between the two countries.  In response, the U.S. has rejected the ruling and terminated the Treaty of Amity.  After a series of punitive actions against Iran, relations between the two countries have reached a new diplomatic low.

The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton have both been critical of the ruling and have been among the most hawkish in the United States’ approach to Iran.  Secretary Pompeo has called the termination of the treaty as, “a decision that is frankly 39 years overdue,” and also said that “Iran is abusing the ICJ for political and propaganda purposes.”  Meanwhile, John Bolton has described Iran as a “rogue state,” and has said that the U.S. would “review” all agreements that could expose the U.S. to ICJ rulings.  On the Iranian side, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described the ruling as a “failure for sanctions-addicted USG [U.S. government] and victory for rule of law.  Imperative for int’l community to collectively counter malign U.S. unilateralism.”

Analysts of the situation have commented on the United States’ increasing distance from international institutions, in this case the International Court of Justice.  Michael Hirsh of Foreign Policy told the BBC that Mr. Bolton’s unilateralism is ideological, while Mr. Trump’s is transactional.  But with their recent actions, they have undermined major institutions of the global system that the U.S. was instrumental in establishing.  Richard Gowan, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Policy Research at the United Nations University, has told CNN that the Trump administration’s actions are “part of a bigger campaign to undermine international institutions” and that Bolton is “obsessed with restraints on U.S. policy-making.”

This heightening of tensions between Tehran and Washington does nothing to facilitate peace in the Middle East, much less improve relations.  In resolving the humanitarian crises that exist in war-torn Syria and Yemen, greater cooperation between regional actors (such as Iran) and international actors (such as the United States) is essential.  With the Syrian conflict in its eighth year and the Yemeni conflict in its fourth, both regional wars need to be brought to their close, as quickly and humanely as possible.  Another result of the U.S. rebuff of the ICJ ruling and its decision to terminate the Treaty of Amity will be a greater distancing between the United States and its European allies and partners.  Already at odds over the U.S.’ unilateral decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord (JCPOA), the gulf between the two sides of the Atlantic alliance will grow deeper even more.

The origins of U.S.-Iranian animosity lie in both Cold War dynamics and more recent political developments.  In 1953, the United States and the United Kingdom carried out a covert operation (Operation Ajax/Boot) in order to overthrow its democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.  Both the United States and the United Kingdom viewed the premiership of Mossadegh with deep suspicion.  Mossadegh and his National Front party had a deeply nationalist character, with secular and socialist elements.  Furthermore, they had as one of their chief priorities the nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry.  This threatened the interests of the U.K., as its Anglo-Persian/Anglo-Iranian Oil Company dominated Iran’s oil industry.  Both countries feared that the country was ripe for a Communist takeover, which would weaken the West’s influence in the Middle East and increase the Soviet Union’s.  After Mossadegh and the Iranian parliament voted to nationalise the oil industry in 1951, the Mossadegh government was overthrown—with Mossadegh forced into house arrest—and the Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) assumed absolute power over the country.

The Shah’s rule was characterised by censorship, a crackdown on political opposition, and a foreign policy orientated towards the West.  Under his rule, oil exports exponentially increased, enriching the nation.  He also encouraged Western investment in infrastructure and other areas of development, carried out a massive land reform initiative and extended the right to vote to women, among other attempts to modernise and Westernise Iran.  However, this faced significant pushback from conservative elements within Iranian society, particularly from the clergy and landlords.  The Shah’s policies eventually resulted in the 1979 revolution, in which both secular and Islamist factions took part.  Ultimately, Iran became an Islamic republic under the leadership of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, with the secular revolutionary factions suppressed and the Shah forced into exile.  This is the government that rules Iran to this day.

Relations between the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States would only worsen in the next ten years after the revolution.  Just months after the revolution and the ousting of the Shah, the American embassy in Tehran was taken over by Iranian pro-government student supporters and 52 American diplomats and citizens taken hostage.  The Iranian government viewed the hostages as a bargaining chip they could use to force the extradition of the Shah back to Iran.  The hostage crisis would turn out to be the longest in history (444 days), and severely damaged relations between Iran and the United States.

At the same time, Iraq declared war against the fledgling Iranian state in 1980.  Iraq under Saddam Hussein feared that the new state would destabilise the Middle East, especially with its Shiite and Islamist character, which posed a threat to Saddam’s Sunni, Ba’athist, Arab nationalist Iraq.  Iraq was supported by the United States, the Soviet Union, France, the U.K., and most Arab states, while Iran had Syria as its only ally.  With Western support, Iraq employed chemical warfare against its Iranian enemy.  Ultimately, the war’s end in 1988 would result in a stalemate and a furthering of the perception that the West (particularly the United States) was anti-Iranian.

Tensions between the two countries would also increase under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013).

This decades-long acrimonious relationship between Iran and the United States explains in large part why the Trump administration has pursued the policies it has.  Some have argued that Trump’s pull-out of the nuclear deal was to spite his predecessor, Barack Obama.  Given the bitter relationship between the previous and current presidents, some have said that Trump was deliberately trying to dismantle as many of Obama’s policy achievements as possible.  Regardless, the amalgam of policies directed against Iran, ranging from sanctions to terminating treaties, does not bode well for either this bilateral relationship or for wider Middle East stability.  One can hope that the other parties to the JCPOA (United Kingdom, France, Germany, EU, Russia, and China) will act as stabilizing mediators and chart a new course in relations between the United States and Iran.  If the U.S. and Iran can briefly lay down their hostilities and amicably resolve Syria and Yemen, the Middle East would without doubt be a better place.