The Islamic Republic of Iran is getting ready to celebrate its fortieth anniversary in early 2019. Over four decades, it has repeatedly refused to ratify international treaties — a costly and damaging move for the country and its people.
Since its establishment, Islamic Republic officials have tended to assume that international treaties threaten to limit its power or control. In reality, though, not only has Iran not been able to avoid the consequences of ignoring international treaties, but it has actually deprived itself and its people of any benefits and advantages that come with signing up to these conventions.
In one instructive example, the Supreme Leader’s advisor in international affairs, Ali-Akbar Velayati, compared two international conventions with the Treaty of Turkmenchay — a treaty that led to Iran losing some of its territory. Iran’s Qajar Dynasty and Imperial Russia signed the Turkmenchay treaty, and another agreement, the Gulistan Treaty, 200 years ago, after Iran’s defeat in the war against Russia. Many other politicians in Iran share Velayati’s attitude toward and view of these historical agreements, and it has become their main excuse over the last 40 years not to join treaties.
The most recent instances of such a negative dismissal are Iran’s response to two United Nations conventions: the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Terrorist Financing Convention.
When sanctions were lifted against Iran following the nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — Iran could have easily ratified those conventions and applied the recommendations set forth by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) so that it could begin benefitting from joining the international bank system. But instead, Iranian officials engaged in the usual struggles over what to do about conventions, to the point where those who opposed the conventions organized street protests to show they had public support. In addition, Ayatollah Khamenei made contradictory statements about the conventions — one day he criticizing them, the next praising them — making the situation even more complicated. The Iranian parliament has ratified both conventions, but they have yet to be signed by the president and implemented into law. Iran has already lost the privilege to fully benefit from the convention and enjoy credits from the FATF.
Since the United States has abandoned the JCPOA and re-introduced sanctions, including the ban on Iran’s Central Bank, Iran now has no chance of working with international banks or financial organizations across the world. And although its failure to sign the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Terrorist Financing Convention has produced serious consequences, those are not the only agreements it has refused to implement.
The Persian Gulf
Iran has borders both the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Both bodies of water are included in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Iran has signed. However, the parliament has yet to formally ratify the convention. This decision is based on a fear that if officials ratify it, the US will have military presence in these southern waters.
In order for ships to enter the Persian Gulf, they need to pass through Iranian territorial waters. According to the Convention of the Sea, this pass is categorized as a “transit pass” — but Iran argues that it did not join the convention and does not accept or recognize this categorization.
So far, 168 countries have joined the convention and following on from this widespread support for the agreement, it has become a universally agreed-upon international law.
US battleships and commercial ships must pass through the Strait of Hormuz to enter the Persian Gulf. Therefore, whether Iran ratifies the convention or not, it must let these ships pass through the strait. If Iran had ratified the agreement, it would have the option of turning to the International Court on the Law of the Sea to follow up any concerns about violations of Iran’s rights in the Persian Gulf — but since it has not signed the convention, Iran does not have any access to this court. This means Iran has to abide the convention in its own territory without having the benefits it offers to the member nations.
Suppressing Women’s Rights Internally, Facing Constant Criticism from the Outside World
Iranian women have a long list of demands for the government. Over the last 40 years, Iranian women have continuously fought against discrimination and demanded equal rights, but they have been persistently ignored and had very little success in achieving these goals. They call for a range of rights, from the most basic, including the freedom to wear what they choose and the freedom to travel, to more complicated issues, including the right to lodge for divorce and rights concerning inheritance, blood money and other issues rooted in Islamic law and sharia.
High-ranked mullahs of Qom, although ignored when they voice their points of views on Islamic banking and other financial affairs, have become the spokesmen of the regime when it comes to opposing equal rights for women or dismissing arguments calling for an end to discrimination against them. One solid example is clerics’ opposition to women entering stadiums to watch football or other types of sport.
Mohammad Khatami’s administration claimed to advocate women’s rights and signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 2001. However, the parliament has yet to ratify the convention.
Among other things, the convention categorizes the human trafficking of women and children in any form as discrimination. Nations that have signed it are required to fight against it. Iran’s Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution — which is run by the president but consists of officials appointed by the Supreme Leader — opposed the idea of joining the convention and declared it to be in contradiction of Islamic laws and sharia.
Since Iran has signed the convention, international entities hold the country accountable and accuse the regime of violating its terms. Iran on the other hand argues that it did not ratify the convention and therefore claim that it is not binding. It is worth pointing out that Iran is the home to many victims of human trafficking, but cannot benefit from the privileges of the convention, including access to international data on human trafficking networks and information about how to combat them.
No Access to the International Criminal Court
The International Criminal Court, which is based in the Hague in the Netherlands and was established in 2002, is widely accepted as a great achievement of the civilized world. It prosecutes people found guilty of three major areas of crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. It is the first and only permanent international criminal court in the world.
According to its statute, if a citizen of any of the member nations commits one of these major crimes, the court can and will prosecute them, and even government officials are not immune from its jurisdiction.
During the era when Mohammad Yazdi was the head of Iran’s judiciary (1989-1999), Iran took part in meetings to discuss the statute of the court and signed up to it — but again, the parliament did not formally ratify it, probably out of fear that the court might prosecute Iranian officials.
If Iran had been a member of the court, if a foreign power invaded Iran and committed war crimes there, Iran would be able to sue that country at the international court. If the UN Security Council decides to, it can request that the court try individuals from non-member countries. In some cases, the court has carried out special investigations of major heinous crimes, such as the war crimes that took place in the former Yugoslavia. In that case, the court was able to prosecute individuals responsible for carrying out genocide there.
Iranian citizens are not immune from prosecution by the criminal court, despite Iranian officials claiming that they are because the Islamic Republic has not ratified the statute. And its refusal to ratify means that Iran is not in a position to formally address an issue at the court if one of its citizens is a victim of the major crimes the court handles.
Years of Stubborn Refusal — And Eventual Adoption
Over the last four decades, the Islamic Republic has failed to ratify international treaties in four instances. In a few cases, it has immediately adopted and ratified an international treaty, including the Paris Climate Agreement. But Iran only took immediate action in situations where it didn’t feel threatened, and where it didn’t believe the treaty went against its own laws and policies.
In recent years and following on from debates and disagreements with the international community regarding Iran’s nuclear program, some politicians voiced regret that Iran had joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; some even stated that Iran should abandon the treaty. Ayatollah Khamenei, who approved every detail of the nuclear deal Iran signed with six countries, has stated that Iran joined the protocol reluctantly after being coerced. In most cases, when Iran even considers signing up to any international treaty, Iranian officials seem to go into full panic mode.
There is no guarantee that countries that avoid joining international treaties can avoid the consequences as well. International laws are so powerful that any country that violates them — whether that country has endorsed the laws or not — faces serious consequences. For example, Iran refused to accept the additional protocols set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would enable one of its inspectors to investigate Iranian nuclear sites. But as sanctions got more severe, Iran eventually had no choice but to agree to the nuclear deal and the parliament had to ratify the protocols.
If Iran had accepted and ratified the protocol earlier, the debates over its nuclear program would have never reached such a boiling point, international pressure would never have reached the levels it did, and sanctions would have been lifted. By the time Iranian officials agreed to comply, the country had no other options.
As the Islamic Republic approaches its fortieth birthday, its officials should acknowledge the pattern that has developed over the years. Iran has paid a great cost for its refusal to join international treaties, both in terms of its relationships on the international stage and in terms of its domestic issues. And, after extended periods of refusals during which it was unable to benefit from the rights and privileges of various conventions, it has repeatedly been forced to sign up to these agreements anyway — a situation the country’s leaders must realize only hurts the Islamic Republic and its citizens.