What Is the 1955 Treaty of Amity? U.S. and Iran Are Still Friends on Paper, but Donald Trump Just Put a Stop to That

The U.S. officially quit a mid-20th-century friendship treaty with Iran, with which Washington has feuded for decades over accusations that Tehran sponsors terrorism and pursues nuclear ambitions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Wednesday the termination of the U.S. and Iran's 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights following Iran's use of the document as justification to take the U.S. to the United Nations' International Court of Justice (ICJ) over sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. The court issued an interim ruling earlier in the day ordering Washington to lift some of the economic restrictions, prompting Pompeo to formally end the little-known, long-defunct diplomatic initiative in a move he called "39 years overdue."

"Iran is attempting to interfere with the sovereign rights of the United States to take the lawful actions necessary to protect our national security, and Iran is abusing the ICJ for political and propaganda purposes," Pompeo told reporters.

"Their case, as you can see from the decision, lacked merit," he added, despite Iran claiming a legal victory at a time when international opinion on the matter was weighing in Tehran's favor.

President Jimmy Carter and Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi toast at a formal dinner in the Niavaran Palace in Tehran, Iran, on December 31, 1978. About two weeks later, Pahlavi and his family would flee the Islamic Revolution that brought the current Shiite Muslim revolutionary government to power. Public Domain

The August 1955 treaty came about when Iran was under the rule of pro-West Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It was signed nearly two years after a CIA-backed coup to remove the shah's democratically elected, nationalist prime minister restored the monarch's absolute power and returned the country's oil industry back to British control. The friendship agreement came into effect in June 1957 and granted Iran economic and diplomatic privileges.

It was the result of the two nations being "desirous of emphasizing the friendly relations which have long prevailed between their peoples, of reaffirming the high principles in the regulation of human affairs to which they are committed, of encouraging mutually beneficial trade and investments and closer economic intercourse generally between their peoples, and of regulating consular relations," according to the document.

These amicable ties would last more than two decades, eventually falling apart during the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted the shah and brought the current Shiite Muslim revolutionary government to power. The new clerical administration was deeply anti-West and held staffers of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran hostage for 444 days, a crisis that effectively severed diplomatic ties between the two countries and set the stage for the current hostilities.

In 2015, the administrations of former President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani forged an unprecedented deal to lift extensive U.S. sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country to agree to restrict its nuclear activities, which it maintained were strictly for peaceful purposes. The accord—which was also signed by China, France, Germany, Russia and the U.K.—was widely hailed as a diplomatic success but was met with skepticism and varying degrees of opposition from hard-liners in both countries.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing at the State Department, in Washington, D.C., on October 3. Pompeo announced that the U.S. was terminating a 1955 treaty reached with then ally Iran, calling the move “39 years overdue.” JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Iran first took the U.S. to the World Court in 2016 over its alleged lack of adherence to the 1955 treaty, contending that Washington had failed to unfreeze $2 billion in Iranian assets. Trump announced in May he would exit the nuclear deal despite pleas from European allies as well as China and Russia, all of which have scrambled to salvage the accord. Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency affirming Iran's compliance with the agreement, Trump said Tehran's support for regional movements opposed to Western interests, its ballistic missile development and alleged desire to build nuclear weapons meant the deal was not worth it.

In June, the ICJ agreed to hear Iran's case. Two months later, Iran asked the court to demand the U.S. lift sanctions against it. No matter what the outcome, however, the State Department's lawyer has argued that the judiciary "lacks prima facie jurisdiction to hear Iran's claims" because the U.S. had a right to defend its national security among other interests and that the 1955 treaty "cannot, therefore, provide a basis for this court's jurisdiction."

Last month, the Trump administration said it would refuse to cooperate with another international body of law, the International Criminal Court (ICC), after it moved to consider investigating potential U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. National security adviser John Bolton said at the time that the U.S. "will fight back to protect American constitutionalism, our sovereignty and our citizens."