Even if Iran ultimately agrees to limitations on its nuclear program, will its leaders comply with the terms? After all, the Iranians have been less than candid over the years. They have railed against the United States and its allies, and they have fomented terrorism. Nevertheless, history demonstrates that, subject to sufficient leverage, Iran can come to an agreement and comply with it.
Since the Nov. 4, 1979, takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the taking of American hostages there, the United States and Iran have had contacts and made arrangements that both sides have complied with. This is exemplified by the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal, which was established as part of the 1981 Algiers Accords.
That agreement, skillfully negotiated by Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher using the Algerian government as an intermediary, provided, among other things, for the creation of a tribunal in The Hague to adjudicate claims by nationals of one country against the other and by each country against the other. I was one of the three American judges on that tribunal for several periods, once appointed by the Reagan administration and once by the Clinton administration.
In the decades since the tribunal was established, the two governments have worked together to appoint judges, finance its operations and establish a fund out of which awards in favor of Americans against Iran would be paid. As a result of the tribunal’s work, Americans have been paid amounts into the billions of dollars to satisfy claims and awards against Iran. The governments also negotiated a settlement of claims against the United States for its 1988 downing of an Iranian passenger airplane, and they agreed on a lump-sum payment by Iran as compensation for Americans with small claims — those under $250,000.
This is not to say that Iran was always easy to deal with. Sometimes it attempted to frustrate hearings; it was often late in depositing money in an account to pay successful claimants; it challenged judges it felt would not vote with it; and it otherwise raised obstacles to the efficient workings of the tribunal. Presumably, Iranian representatives were motivated by the views of those in power in Iran.
But with patience, resolve and sufficient leverage, the United States has been able to ensure that Iran continued to participate, that the tribunal operated with relative success and that American claimants were paid. Iran had an incentive to participate, in part so that it could have its own claims heard.
That is happening now, as the tribunal deals with claims by Iran against the United States in connection with military sales that were disrupted by the Iranian revolution and claims related to the alleged failure of the United States to allow the transmission of Iranian property to Iran. Iran also has sought to enforce a provision of the hostage agreement that the United States not interfere in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic.
The United States, facing exposure to billions of dollars in Iranian claims, had opportunities to abandon the tribunal after U.S. claims were largely resolved, a course some advocated. But the administration of President George W. Bush decided not to risk the appearance of not complying with the concepts of international law and international dispute resolution and to avoid the charge that it participated in the tribunal only until the claims of Americans had been resolved.
Other than American claimants before the tribunal, few in the United States are even aware of its existence, but Iran has had to deal with public opinion at home about its operation. After Iranian declarations that the United States owed it billions of dollars, there were expectations in Iran that it would receive these monies. Nonetheless, the government has remained engaged with the tribunal — a hopeful, if not conclusive, sign, if a nuclear agreement is reached.
The long history of the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal demonstrates that it is possible for two countries to arrive at mutually satisfactory arrangements. But to do so, Iran must have sufficient incentive to arrive at an agreement and comply with it. The leverage of economic sanctions and the threat of force fulfill this function.
Another factor will be whether Iran can make an agreement without feeling that the United States and its allies have humiliated it. Iran’s policies in recent years have been based in part on its feeling, whether right or wrong, that it has been exploited by Western powers dating back at least to 1953, when a coup supported by the West brought the shah into power.
Even during the darkest days of Iranian and United States relations, the two governments have been able to come to an agreement and abide by it. They should be able to do it now.
Richard M. Mosk, a justice on the California Court of Appeal, was one of the original judges on the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal.