The United Nations’ highest court has ordered the United States to lift sanctions on Iran that affect imports of humanitarian goods and products and services linked to the safety of civil aviation.
The ruling by the International Court of Justice is legally binding but it remains to be seen if the administration of President Donald Trump will comply.
Mr Trump moved to restore tough US sanctions in May after withdrawing from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers.
Iran challenged the sanctions in a case filed in July at the International Court of Justice in the Hague in the Netherlands.
In a preliminary ruling, the court said Washington must “remove, by means of its choosing, any impediments arising from” the reimposition of sanctions to the export to Iran of medicine and medical devices, food and agricultural commodities and spare parts and equipment necessary to ensure the safety of civil aviation.
By limiting the order to sanctions covering humanitarian goods and the civil aviation industry, the ruling did not go as far as Iran had requested.
The US ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Hoekstra pointed that out in a tweet.
“This is a meritless case over which the court has no jurisdiction,” the ambassador said.
“Even so, it is worth noting that the Court declined today to grant the sweeping measures requested by Iran. Instead, the Court issued a narrow decision on a very limited range of sectors.”
While imposing the so-called “provisional measures”, the court’s president Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf stressed that the ruling does not prejudge the ultimate outcome of the case or establish that the court has jurisdiction.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif praised the court ruling on Twitter, calling it “another failure for sanctions-addicted” America and a “victory for rule of law”.
He added that it is imperative for the international community “to collectively counter malign US unilateralism”.
Iranian state television trumpeted the court’s decision in a scrolling graphic at the bottom of TV screens: “The victory of Tehran over Washington by the Hague Court.”
The US is expected to challenge the court’s jurisdiction in a future hearing.
At hearings in August, Tehran sought the suspension of the sanctions while the case challenging their legality is being heard – a process that can take years.
US lawyers responded that the sanctions are a legal and justified national security measure that cannot be challenged by Tehran at the world court.
In its decision, the court said the US sanctions “have the potential to endanger civil aviation safety” in Iran and that sanctions limiting sales of goods required for humanitarian needs such as food, medicines and medical devices “may have a serious detrimental impact on the health and lives of individuals on the territory of Iran”.
The court said the Trump administration must “ensure that licences and necessary authorisations are granted” and payments not restricted if they are linked to the humanitarian and aviation goods.
It also told both the United States and Iran to “refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute”.
Iran alleges that the sanctions breach a 1955 bilateral agreement known as the Treaty of Amity that regulates and promotes economic and consular ties between the two countries.
The treaty was signed when the US and Iran were still allies following the 1953 revolution – fomented by Britain and the US – that ultimately cemented the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Diplomatic relations were severed following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and takeover of the US embassy and ensuing hostage crisis.
However, the treaty remains in force.
Wednesday’s ruling could set up another clash between the Trump administration and a Hague-based court.
Last month, Mr Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton denounced the International Criminal Court (ICC) – a separate and unrelated institution based just a few miles away from the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The ICC prosecutes people accused of war atrocities while the ICJ settles disputes between nations.
Mr Bolton said last month that “for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us”.