The nature of international courts may limit Iran’s attempt to bring the U.S. to justice.
Iran is fast-tracking debate on a bill that could see Iran sue the United States for its involvement in the 1953 coup that ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.
Long suspected by the international community, the U.S. support for the coup was confirmed earlier this month when declassified CIA documents showed the U.S. played a role in overthrowing Mosaddeq. In response to this announcement, Iran’s 290-seat house approved urgent debate of the bill Tuesday in a session broadcast on state radio.
One of Mosaddeq’s most notable policies involved the nationalization of Iranian oil, which had been under control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. As a result, the British MI-6 and the American CIA helped orchestrate a plot and provide material resources to overthrow Mosaddeq’s government.
The coup restored the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, an ally of Western governments who was later overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The revolution led to a new theocratic government led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The weaknesses in international law
If it’s adjudicated, legal experts believe the claim will likely be heard by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). “It’s a court made up of 15 judges who meet at the Hague at the Peace Palace in the Netherlands. The ICJ was set forth in the charter of the UN, the U.S. helped create after World War II,” James Kraska, professor of International Law at Duke University and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Mint Press News. “It has functioned well in cases where both parties agree to the rule of the court.”
The court is supposed to act as an arbiter of international law. Legal experts, however, claim that it suffers from one major flaw — there effectively is no enforcement mechanism.
“The greatest problem Iran would face is states have sovereign immunity, meaning the U.S. could easily say, ‘we are not going through with this,’” Kraska said. “It has functioned well in cases where both parties agree to the rule of the court.”
“Judgements can always be ignored. There is no enforcement mechanism, no international police force,” Kraska explains. “Think about a country like Vietnam, they could do the same thing. They could say the U.S ought to be liable for the Vietnam war and say, ‘give us 2 trillion dollars.’”
Even if the U.S. agreed to go to trial, Kraska believes that there is a high burden of proof on Iran to show conclusively that U.S. actions caused the coup.
“It would also be difficult to prove liability even if it went to court. You would have to prove that the proximate cause of the overthrow of the government was the U.S. and was not internal forces and the U.S. sort of helped them along,” Kraska said.
So what’s the point of Iran threatening to sue the U.S. for its role in the 1953 coup?
Some experts posit that it could be yet another political statement in a long history of antagonistic rhetoric between the two countries. “It’s probably a political maneuver by Iran to be able to weaken or sully that aspect of American soft power,” Kraska said.
Others think it’s more an inflammatory exercise than anything else.“This shows extraordinary nerve on the part or Iran to be going back to a 1953 coup and drag this up in [the] ICJ in light of their responsibility in the Iranian hostage crisis,” said John Norton Moore, professor of law at the University of Virginia school of law.
Where it functions
So is the ICJ a useless institution? Far from it. Legal experts contend that numerous border disputes have been settled when both parties agree to the ruling of the ICJ. “It’s not worthless. States adjudicate maritime disputes,” Kraska said.
Iran and the U.S. actually have a history at the ICJ, where they met previously to decide a case involving a dispute over oil platforms and an attack on a naval ship in the Persian Gulf.
The 2003 “Case Concerning Oil Platforms” involved the destruction of three Iranian offshore oil platforms and an attack on the United States Navy warship, the USS Samuel B. Roberts.
The U.S. ship was struck by a mine in the Persian Gulf thought to be laid by Iran. In retaliation, the U.S. carried out a series of attacks against three Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf in 1987 and 1988.
The U.S. filed claims against Iran for attacking its ship and Iran filed claims against the U.S. for hindering international commerce by destroying oil platforms. In 2003, 11 years after the initial application was submitted by Iran, the ICJ rejected the claims of both states.
“There would not be a general ability to sue the U.S. in the international criminal court unless they were trying to make a case under the friendship and navigation treaty, which they were able to bring against the U.S. in response … to an attack on global shipping,” Kraska said.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is also limited in its ability to try individuals for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“The ICC was set up by a separate treaty in the 1990’s. It has jurisdiction over some of those crimes of individuals. People have talked previously about bringing Henry Kissinger to the ICC,” explained Kraska. “The problem is that the ICC has some fairly rigorous requirements. For example, if the country a criminal comes from already has a well-functioning judicial system, they would not entertain the case.”
This means that bringing any leader from the U.S. or other democratic governments would be impossible at the ICC. “Countries like Somalia that could be considered to have a failed or degraded civil society would be eligible to have war criminals tried in their courts,” Kraska said.