The case of Certain Iranian Assets (Iran v. USA): missed opportunity for the ICJ and procedural tricks of the parties

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Author: Sofia Pimenova

DOI: 10.21128/2226-2059-2023-3-3-17

Keywords: International Court of Justice; international disputes; international law; immunity from execution of central bank assets


This article analyzes the circumstances of the case of Certain Iranian Assets (Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States of America) that has been decided by the International Court of Justice in 2023. The author examines the arguments of the parties and the conclusions reached by the Court in the judgment on jurisdiction in 2019 and in the judgment on the merits of the dispute in 2023. It is noted that the main issue in this case was the legality, in terms of customary international law, of the actions of the U.S. authorities to seize the assets of Bank Markazi to pay compensation awarded by the U.S. courts to victims of terrorist acts. Nevertheless, the International Court of Justice, at the stage of recognizing its jurisdiction, has bypassed the issue of the immunities of central banks’ assets, as defined by customary international law rules, using a narrow textual interpretation of the Treaty of Amity between the United States and Iran. The refusal of the Court to consider these issues has caused undisguised regret among some scholars and represents a missed opportunity to clarify this controversial issue. Iran’s attempt to present Bank Markazi as a “company” engaged in commercial activities, and thus subject to the guarantees, outlined in the Treaty of Amity, also did not find understanding among the judges of the International Court of Justice. The Court’s conclusion that the activities of central banks cannot be divided into commercial and sovereign due to the specificity of their functions and activities is more consistent with the assumption of absolute immunity of such assets. It is noted that the creativity of both sides of the dispute has forced the Court to answer a wide range of controversial questions, such as those regarding the powers and activities of central banks, the “clean hands” doctrine, exhaustion of local remedies and abuse of procedural rights by the parties. At the same time, it is pointed out that in terms of possible compensation, the United States has won more than Iran, having managed to remove the issue of the assets of Bank Markazi in the amount of $1,9 billion from the Court’s jurisdiction, since the value of the assets of other Iranian companies barely exceeds $25 million.

About the author: Sofia Pimenova – Candidate of Sciences (Ph.D.) in Law, International Law Department, Faculty of Law, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia.

Citation: Pimenova S. (2023) Spor o nekotorykh iranskikh aktivakh (Iran protiv SShA): upushchennaya vozmozhnost’ Mezhdunarodnogo Suda OON i protsessual’nye ulovki storon [The case of Certain Iranian Assets (Iran v. USA): missed opportunity for the ICJ and procedural tricks of the parties]. Mezhduna­rodnoe pravosudie, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 3–17. (In Russian).


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