On July 22nd, the Trump administration imposed economic sanctions on the Chinese trading company Zhuhai Zhenrong Co. and its chief executive, Li Youmin, over continuing violations of U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports. This decision by the Trump administration highlights a litany of ongoing international legal issues between the U.S., China, and Iran and indicates that the U.S. has no intention of allowing international law to dictate its actions. Instead, the U.S. seeks to use international legal mechanisms as convenient tools by which to pursue an aggressive and standoffish set of foreign policy decisions.
To begin, it is clear the Trump Administration will not allow international law to dictate its sanctions regimes against Iran. In early October 2018, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) reprimanded the United States for the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran, specifically ruling that the U.S. should lift restrictive measures regarding humanitarian aid, medicine, and civil aviation. This move came after Iran complained to the ICJ in July 2018 that the re-imposition of sanctions violated the Treaty of Amity, a 1955 pre-revolution treaty of friendship.
In response to this decision, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “urg[ed] that the ICJ’s ruling in favour of Iran be ignored, arguing the ‘court failed to recognise its lack of jurisdiction’ and that Iran had ‘attempted to interfere with the sovereign rights of the United States’”. The U.S., far from supporting this ICJ decision, appear in recent days to be actively working against it. President Trump, on July 24, warned that civil aviation companies providing resources and support to Iranian aviation companies, including Mahan Air, would be subject to further sanctioning.
Despite the other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal uniformly rejecting U.S. unilateral sanctions and meeting as recently as July 28 with Iranian officials to try to salvage the nuclear deal, the U.S. continues to expand its sanctions regime. Given there is little global support for U.S. sanctions, China has decried the new sanctions against Zhuhai Zhenrong Co. as illegitimate. Hua Chunying, the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson for the PRC, said on July 23 that “China has stressed many times that the normal energy cooperation between Iran and the international community, including China, under the framework of international law is legal and reasonable, thus should be respected and protected.”
Continuing escalation of sanctions has also given Iran a legal and political window to ignore the only true cap on Iranian nuclear actions, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran is now claiming that it has the authority to respond to the U.S. walkout, meaning that its continuing accumulation of enriched uranium does not violate the nuclear deal. This is further concerning because there is no other international legal document which explicitly restricts Iranian uranium enrichment. Although some scholars argue that UN Security Council Resolution of 1929 prohibits Iran from enriching uranium, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, says that “there is no [current] international standard prohibiting Iran from enriching uranium”.
The U.S. is clearly using sanctions to pressure Iran and China politically rather than to support international legal concerns, deeply degrading international legal standards. First, Iran only began to breach the limitations of the nuclear deal after the U.S. abandoned it and re-imposed sanctions, suggesting that the goal of the sanctions themselves is not to limit Iranian nuclear production. Iranian leadership certainly seems to believe this, with the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations asking: “How can we start a dialogue with somebody whose primary occupation is to put more sanctions on Iran?” Second, the Chinese will almost certainly use the perceived illegitimacy of U.S. sanctions to distract from their own underhanded and questionably legal actions in Iran. Prior to the 2015 nuclear deal, Zhuhai Zhenrong, along with several other Chinese companies, bought Iranian oil at a rate of around 500,000 barrels per day at a time when the U.S. sanctions regime was broadly seen as a legitimate enforcement of international principles.
The poor handling of recent sanctions will almost certainly turn international legal opinion against the United States, despite strong evidence that no side in this dispute is without significant faults.
Evan Schleicher is the Editorial Intern for the International Enforcement Law Reporter. He is currently an MA candidate in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University, focusing on transnational security and humanitarian issues.