Top UN court sides with Iran and rules US must roll back some sanctions

The UN’s highest court handed Iran a legal victory over the US on Wednesday when it ordered the White House to roll back some of Donald Trump’s sanctions on Tehran.

Judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled unanimously that parts of the sanctions the US imposed on Iran in May were illegal and must be removed.

The Iranian government hailed the ruling as proof that "Iran is in the right” but the US said it was not bound by the court’s decision and would not ease sanctions.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said he was "disappointed that the court failed to recognise that it has no jurisdiction to issue any order relating to these sanctions measures.” 

The court ruled that the US must roll back sanctions that would hamper Iran’s ability to important medicine, food, and spare parts necessary for civilian airline safety. 

In a 29-page ruling, the judges said that US sanctions could stop Iran importing humanitarian items and have “a serious detrimental impact on the health and lives of individuals on the territory of Iran”.

It also ruled that a US ban on spare airline parts had the "potential to endanger civil aviation safety in Iran and the lives of its users".

Mr Trump ordered a first round of punishing sanctions on Iran in May after he pulled the US out of the 2015 nuclear agreement earlier this year. 

Iran petitioned the court in July, arguing that Mr Trump’s decision violated a 1955 treaty signed between the countries before they became arch-foes following the Iranian revolution in 1979. 

Mr Pompeo announced Wednesday he was terminating the treaty in response to the ruling. “This is a decision, frankly, that is 39 years overdue,” he said.

Judges agreed with the Iranian argument and ordered the US to scale back some of the sanctions. 

“The decision proved once again that the Islamic Republic is right and the US sanctions against people and citizens of our country are illegal and cruel,” the Iranian foreign ministry said in a statement. 

“The United States must comply with its international commitments and lift obstacles to Iranian trade,” it added.

Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, called the decision “another failure for the sanctions-addicted US government and victory for rule of law”. 

There was no immediate response by the US. During a hearing in August, the US argued that the ICJ did not have the authority to rule on the case because it was related to American national security.  

The US sanctions have already badly weakened Iran’s economy and sent the riyal spiraling to new lows against the dollar. 

A second round of even tougher sanctions is due to go into force in November, targeting countries which buy Iranian oil. 

Iran has demanded that European countries find a way to offset the economic damage caused by US sanctions. Tehran has threatened to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement if American sanctions choke off its economy. 

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, said Wednesday Europe had taken "a big step" towards maintaining business relations with Iran by setting up a special channel designed to allow European firms to trade with Iran while avoiding US sanctions.

Analysts have been sceptical that the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) arrangement would give European firms the confidence to continue doing business with Iran but Mr Rouhani praised the measure.