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The Ethical Dimension Of U.S. Sanctions On Iran

The International Court of Justice has ruled that U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic will limit basic necessities, causing ‘a serious detrimental impact on the health and lives’ of Iranians

Judges at the World Court, also known as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, issued a provisional ruling on Wednesday ordering the U.S. to partially lift its sanctions on Iran so as to allow the import of humanitarian goods, as well as services pertaining to civil aviation safety.

Last May, U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 nuclear accord, an agreement that involved greater restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear activities, including inspections of facilities, in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. Former U.S. president Barack Obama, the EU, Britain, China, and Russia worked closely with Iran to hash out the details of the plan. But after Trump withdrew from the agreement, his administration began re-implementing sanctions on the Iranian economy, a process that has been unfolding in phases.

Since the partial return of sanctions, the Iranian economy has been in free fall as the currency—the rial—has slipped to record lows. The resulting economic instability has sparked protests throughout the country with calls to reform the political system.

Iran challenged the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, filing a case at the ICJ in July. It argued that the move violated a 1955 treaty signed between the countries, at a time when they were on better terms.

But just hours after the ICJ’s decision, the U.S. decided to pull out of the six-decade-old treaty. In a press conference in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. would simply ignore the ruling by canceling the treaty between the two countries. He also accused the Iranians of ignoring the bilateral treaty “for an awfully long time.”

After the court’s decision was issued, Iranian state television immediately hailed it as “The victory of Tehran over Washington by the Hague Court.”

In its decision, the court ruled that U.S. sanctions “have the potential to endanger civil aviation safety” in Iran, adding that the prohibition of humanitarian goods, such as foodstuffs, medicines and medical devices “may have a serious detrimental impact on the health and lives of individuals.”

It ordered the U.S. government to “ensure that licenses and necessary authorizations are granted” for the import of such necessities.

The ruling raises an ethical question facing the Trump administration. While it imposes tougher sanctions on the Iranian regime, should these measures deprive the Iranian people of necessary goods and services?

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an Iran expert at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Media Line that there is “lack of clarity when it comes to the humanitarian or ethical dimensions of sanctions.

“The hope is that the ICJ’s decision will contribute to or help foster a legal definition over what constitutes humanitarian exceptions to sanctions… This is an important signal to those who impose sanctions to consider the ethical side of their actions,” Fathollah-Nejad said.

“If the U.S. is willing to consider this side, it could easily open avenues for Iran to receive humanitarian necessities,” he concluded.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told The Media Line that Iran’s argument at the ICJ about an American violation of a half-century-old treaty of friendship between the two states begs a larger question.

“Would the Islamic Republic live by other international standards and treaties that pre-revolutionary Iran adopted? If so, Iran would be a much better place if it did. And if not, this move should be seen as pure politics, and one of Iran’s limited diplomatic moves in advance of the restoration of heavy sanctions this November,” Ben Taleblu said.

“According to U.S. Treasury Department guidelines, the U.S. has continued to authorize trade in humanitarian goods with Iran and will keep that channel open as long as trade is not being conducted with designated Iranian entities. More clarity and attention should be given to this issue after the new batch of sanctions in November.”

Ben Taleblu concluded that “there is no force on this earth that has impeded the access of the Iranian people to basic necessities and a decent life other than the leadership of the Islamic Republic.”