Iran says US seized $2bn in assets to destabilise its government

Tehran accuses Washington of violating international law for ruling its central bank money could be used to compensate victims of 1983 bombing

A picture taken on November 21, 2017 shows the building of the International Court of Justice ICJ in the Hague.  / AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS
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Iran said the US seizure of about $2 billion in assets from state bank accounts to compensate bombing victims was an attempt to destabilise the Iranian government.

Tehran told the International Court of Justice — the UN’s highest court — on Monday that the move was in breach of international law.

In 2016, the Iranian government filed a suit with the body after the US Supreme Court ruled money held in its central bank could be used to compensate the 241 victims of the 1983 bombing of a US military base in Lebanon believed to be linked to Iran.

Hearings in the case opened on Monday in the court based in The Hague, starting with Iran’s arguments. The proceedings will continue with opening statements by the US on Wednesday.

At stake are $1.75bn in bonds, plus accumulated interest, belonging to the Iranian state but held in a Citibank account in New York.

In 1983, a suicide bomber in a lorry loaded with military-grade explosives attacked a US Marines barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American troops and 58 French soldiers.

While Iran has long denied being involved, a US District Court judge found Tehran responsible in 2003. That ruling said Iran’s ambassador to Syria at the time made a phone call to “a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and instructed him to instigate the marine barracks bombing”.

The International Court of Justice ruled it had jurisdiction to hear the case in 2019, rejecting an argument from the US that its national security interests superseded the 1955 Treaty of Amity, which promised friendship and co-operation between the two countries.

“The freedom of navigation and commerce guaranteed by the treaty have been gravely breached,” Tavakol Habibzadeh, head of international legal affairs for Iran, told the 14-judge panel on Monday.

An 'industry of litigation'

A 2012 US law ordered the bank to hand over the assets to the families of those killed in the Beirut bombing.

A US court concluded the attack, which struck the barracks of service members conducting peacekeeping operations during Lebanon’s civil war, was carried out by Iranian agents supported by militant group Hezbollah.

Mr Habibzadeh said on Monday that the US has created an “industry of litigation” against Iran and Iranian companies in an effort to undermine the regime. The seizure was only one manoeuvre “aiming to destabilise Iran and the Iranian government”, Mr Habibzadeh said.

The two countries have had no diplomatic relations since the 1979 US embassy takeover by militant students in Tehran.

There is a second case pending between the two countries before the International Court of Justice over the same obscure treaty.

Tehran filed an unrelated complaint with the court in 2018 after former president Donald Trump reimposed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. In response, the US withdrew from the treaty entirely.

The hearings come as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi went to New York on Monday, where he will be speaking to the UN General Assembly later this week.

Talks between Iran and world powers over reviving a 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear activities remain stalled. Tehran and Washington have traded written responses in recent months on a road map that would allow sanctions on Iran to be lifted in exchange for the restriction of its rapidly advancing nuclear programme.

Updated: September 19, 2022, 4:51 PM