According to The Guardian,

The CIA has publicly admitted for the first time that it was behind the notorious 1953 coup against Iran's democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, [...].

After that, Shah returns to power and during the next 25 years, he killed thousands of Iranian people.

By international laws, can Iran sue US for the coup or its results?

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    Could the descendents of Shah Reza Pahlavi, or the members of his government, or the many business owners displaced in 1979, sue the current Iranian government? After all, the theocracy took control by force, not by election, so technically that also was a coup.
    – tj1000
    Jun 19, 2017 at 16:53
  • Strictly speaking, anyone can sue for anything and the real question is whether there is legal liability, and if it were found, what the consequences of the finding would be.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 19, 2017 at 17:04
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    @tj1000 despite what media inspire you, late Imam Khomeini was very popular. he took control by election , not by force. that was not a coup.
    – user 1
    Jun 20, 2017 at 6:41
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    @user1 - that really doesn't make a difference, because the Shah was not removed from power by an election, even if, in a fair and open one, Khomeini would have easily won. I think you are reading intent into tj1000's comment that isn't there. He isn't making a judgment about it. The Shah was deposed/overthrown. To tj1000's point, sure they could certainly sue, but, with a certain amount of irony, they'd certainly lose in Iran's courts, even if they had some legitimacy to their claims, much like how the Shah couldn't be "legitimately" removed because he'd never allow a legitimate election. Jun 20, 2017 at 18:57

1 Answer 1


Short Answer


Obviously, anyone can bring a lawsuit at any time on any theory, but such as lawsuit would be dismissed early on in any of the forums in which it could be brought. It does not state a valid legal claim that can prevail in some tribunal that can enforce it.

What Is International Law?

International law is not a settled, consensus thing in the same way that domestic law is, so it is often not possible to say that something did or didn't violate international law or that a specific remedy is authorized. Even when it applies, it often only does so with the consent of the parties against whom one seeks to enforce it. One can develop a narrative based upon international law principles that argues one way or the other, but in the kind of fact pattern described in this question there is no authoritative answer.

There are doctrines and treaties out there that are often given effect in the domestic courts of various countries and in international tribunals which mostly rely on the governments of some country to enforce their rulings.

Analysis Of An International Forum

There are a handful of international tribunals that address very specific subjects like boundary disputes, trade disagreements in the context of an outstanding treaty, or war crimes arising under international law, but none of the existing forums would be appropriate for this dispute.

Only the U.N. Security Council claims jurisdiction to take action against sovereign states for generalized violations of international law and the U.S. would have veto power of any action it sought to take against the U.S. as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

Analysis Of A U.S. Forum

A U.S. court would find that the doctrine of sovereign immunity applies and also might bar a case based upon the doctrine of statute of limitations, and would refuse to grant relief.

As a general rule, sovereign states claim immunity for all military and quasi-military and intentional actions they engaged in and waive immunity only their commercial activities and accidental and unintended harm to third parties (e.g. compensation for innocents harmed in war on the state's own terms even when the harm is justified by the laws of war).

Analysis Under Universal Jurisdiction Principles

Most world courts would find that the issue is non-justiciable or beyond their jurisdiction as this claim probably does not fall within the scope of universal jurisdiction which is the concept that any court with that jurisdiction may consider any matter that has worldwide impact (mostly war crimes or comparable severe human rights violations), which a CIA sponsored coup may have led to, but which were ultimately committed by the new regime and not the CIA itself.

Generally, universal jurisdiction is asserted in criminal or quasi-criminal proceedings against culpable individuals involved that involve harm to particular individuals, rather than against countries, so this is of limited relevance. The CIA agents involved in this event 64 years ago are likely dead or elderly and beyond the jurisdiction of any non-U.S., if they could be identified at all. (This is probably an important reason that CIA involvement was admitted at all.)

The Shah (who was forced into exile in Egypt with his family for the rest of his life) and many his leading cronies paid the price for their own wrong doing shortly after the 1979 revolution.

After the revolution, human rights groups estimated the number of casualties suffered by protesters and prisoners of the new system to be several thousand. The first to be executed were members of the old system – senior generals, followed by over 200 senior civilian officials, as punishment and to eliminate the danger of a coup d’État. Brief trials lacking defense attorneys, juries, transparency or opportunity for the accused to defend themselves, were held by revolutionary judges such as Sadegh Khalkhali, the Sharia judge. By January 1980 "at least 582 persons had been executed." Among those executed was Amir Abbas Hoveida, former Prime Minister of Iran.

Between January 1980 and June 1981, when Bani-Sadr was impeached, at least 900 executions took place, for everything from drug and sexual offenses to "corruption on earth," from plotting counter-revolution and spying for Israel to membership in opposition groups. In the 12 months following that Amnesty International documented 2,946 executions, with several thousand more killed in the next two years according to the anti-government guerillas People's Mujahedin of Iran.

Analysis Of An Iranian Forum

The courts of the current regime in Iran might very well entertain such a suit as a violation of Iranian law, but would be hard pressed to enforce the claim. So, no criminal remedy would be possible given the unavailability of the defendants. Any civil or criminal money judgment or fine would in all probability be effectively impossible to satisfy short of an act of war against the United States.

In practice, any court judgment in this situation would be indistinguishable from a unilateral political act.

Also, even in the Iranian courts, entertaining a suit such as this one would require the current regime to claim continuity of regime with the one deposed in 1953. But, the political theory of the current Iranian state under the 1979 constitution (as amended), is that its authority rests upon the religious edicts of Islam and a referendum of the Iranian people, and not upon the 1953 constitution.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a revolution against secular government generally and not merely the Shah. The preamble to the 1979 constitution specifically disavows both regimes as Wikipedia paraphrases:

The constitution begins by stating that the "anti-despotic movement for constitutional government [1906-1911], and anti-colonialist movement for the nationalization of petroleum" in 1950s failed because of lack of religious coloring thereunder. Moreover, the "central axis" of the theocracy shall be Quran and hadith.

Preamble further states: "The Assembly of Experts for Constitution...fram[ed] the Constitution...[after input] by the government...with the hope that this century will witness the establishment of a universal holy government and the downfall of all others."

Also, the revolutionary doctrines of the 1979 revolution, while condemning the U.S. for supporting the Shah's regime, did not particular focus on the illegitimacy of the coup. So, there is no internal reason for Iranian courts to focus on this hook.

It is also plausible that treaties between the current regime of Iran and the U.S. would pre-empt this suit, although I do not have a comprehensive knowledge of those treaties. At a minimum, entering into multiple treaties could be construed as a waiver of any such claims, even if claims arising out of the 1953 coup were not expressly mentioned. The most recent treaty between the U.S. and Iran was entered into in 2015.

  • What if the US doesn't veto, say, out of the goodness of their leader's heart? Could the UN condemn the US to pay a fine?
    – sgf
    Jun 19, 2017 at 23:58
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    @sgf The bottom line is that the UN cannot force the US to do anything that it is not wiling to do. It may have the power of shame, but not compulsion. And, it is hard to call such a mechanism "law".
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 20, 2017 at 3:33
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    @ohwilleke The UN Security Council can mandate the use of force against a member country. Obviously that involves a) the US failing to veto the use of force against it; b) finding nations that are willing to actually use force against the US. Jun 20, 2017 at 7:58
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    What's the UN going to do if the US refuses to pay? Send us a strongly worded letter? Condemn US? They are powerless to enforce it. Unless they can guilt trip US into paying them its not going to happen.
    – Rujikin
    Jun 20, 2017 at 14:06
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    @MartinBonner The U.S. agreeing to a resolution calling for the use of force against it by failing to veto the resolution, followed by finding nations willing to do so is so profoundly counterfactual that it doesn't bear serious consideration. The U.S. could also voluntarily nuke NYC with its own weapons as penance for its myriad historical wrongs, but it isn't any more likely to do that.
    – ohwilleke
    Jun 20, 2017 at 18:13

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