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Iran's Plan To Sue U.S. Over 1953 Coup A Nonstarter, Experts Say

A crowd of demonstrators tear down the Iran Party's sign from the front of the headquarters in Tehran on August 19, 1953, during the pre-Shah riot that swept through the capital and ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.
Iran's parliament approved a bill this week that requires the government to sue the United States over its role in the 1953 coup that overthrew the country's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

The bill follows the recent release of declassified CIA documents that show the U.S. intelligence agency orchestrated the coup, paving the way for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's autocratic rule until he was ousted courtesy of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Parts of an internal CIA report that was released were made available decades ago in heavily redacted form, but were published this month by a U.S. research institute in full, with many previously censored sections made public for the first time.

According to the bill, a commission should be set up to study the issue and provide a report on the financial damages incurred by the coup within six months, before Tehran takes legal action against Washington.

The move, however, appears to be more a symbolic gesture by the Iranian parliament than the initiation of an earnest legal challenge. In order to file a lawsuit against the United States, Iran would need a place to file a lawsuit and be able to provide evidence that international law was violated.

International law experts say Iran could be lacking both. Diane Marie Amann, an international law expert at the University Of Georgia School Of Law, says the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the court that hears lawsuits brought by countries against one another.

But she says it's very unlikely that Iran would succeed in introducing a case against the United States at the ICJ. "In order to maintain a lawsuit in that court, both of the countries at issue have to belong to a preexisting international agreement by which they say, 'If we have a dispute with each other, we will go to this court,'" Amann says. "And the likelihood of Iran finding an agreement like that, that was in effect in 1953 and remains in effect today, is rather slim."

Hard To Prove

Even if Iran were to find a venue to sue the United States, and the United States agreed to go to court, it would be a challenge for the Islamic republic to prove that U.S. actions and its involvement in the 1953 coup were illegal.

Iranian lawmakers have said that documents prove that the United States has a history of bad intention toward Iran and that revelations contained in the recently declassified CIA document provide sufficient evidence that compensation is warranted.

But Ruth Wedgwood, head of the international law program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, says the Iranians' main argument would be difficult to prove.

"I think the UN Charter contemplates that countries, in general, will mind their own business in the sense that there's a right to national self-governance, self-determination, you can't invade another country willy-nilly," Wedgwood says. "But whether any kind of participation in political change in another country is forbidden, that's a very tall order. Countries try to influence evolution of events in other states all the time, whether it's by giving money or sharing opinions or engaging in public expression of support for one regime and castigation of another regime."

'Hurting National Interests'

According to Paul Dubinsky, professor of international law and director of graduate studies at Wayne State University Law School in Michigan and vice president of the American Branch of the International Law Association, Iran wants to have it both ways. "It wants to assume its immunity under treaties, statues, and customary international laws but what it is seeking to do is pierce United States immunity and that's going to be very difficult to do," he says.

Dubinsky adds that there is a long and complicated legal history between Iran and the United States. "That legal history includes litigations surrounding the hostages in the 1970s and surrounding certain actions by Hizballah and other Iranian-backed groups in the 1980s and '90s," he explains. "Iran has always asserted its sovereign immunity against those suits to defend it."

The move by the conservative-dominated parliament comes amid some degree of hope that tensions between Tehran and Washington could be eased under newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

READ MORE: U.S.-Iran Rapprochement Over Before It Started?

Mehdi Mohtashami, the former head of the America desk of Iran's Foreign Ministry, has described the bill as a "political maneuver" that could damage the country. "Bills in the parliament should be enforceable. Otherwise they could become measures that cannot be enforced by any government and ultimately will hurt Iran's national interests," Mohtashami told the website

The declassified CIA documents, made public by the nonprofit National Security Archive on August 19 -- the 60th anniversary of the coup -- are believed to be the first acknowledgement that the coup was conducted under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy. "The reality is that the publishing of these documents does not add any information to what we know, nor does it reduce the USA's crimes," a spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry said a day after they were published.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.