Carter, Reagan, and Khomeini: Presidential Transitions and International Law

138 Pages Posted: 13 Jun 2012

Date Written: 2001


Although lame-duck Presidents frequently push through partisan domestic laws and policies during the waning hours of their administrations, they usually steer clear of significant or controversial international issues; or, at the least, they seek their successors' concurrence as to the course to pursue. This Article examines one of those rare instances in which a lame-duck President was able and chose, during the final hours of his Administration, to bind the United States to significant international commitments without the concurrence of the President-elect. President Carter’s final year in office was dominated by his efforts to secure the release of the American hostages in Iran. To this end, on his last full day in office, President Carter adhered to the Algiers Declarations, which committed the United States and Iran to numerous interdependent obligations. President Carter did so in spite of President-elect Reagan’s opposition to negotiating with terrorists and to many of the treaty terms then under consideration. It fell to the reluctant Reagan Administration to implement the Algiers Declarations, and Iran, unhappy with the Reagan Administration’s implementation, has repeatedly hauled the United States before the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal claiming myriad treaty violations. The Tribunal has now passed judgment on virtually all of those claims, and this Article takes stock of the long-term consequences that have resulted from the widely divergent treaty interpretations espoused by the Governments of Carter, Reagan, and Khomeini. By systematically examining the Reagan Administration's implementation against the background of the negotiations between the Carter Administration and the Ayatollah's Islamic Republic and in light of well-established rules of treaty interpretation, this Article reveals that the Reagan Administration's implementation was, in many respects, grudging, ideological, and, at times, very sloppy. Rather than conforming to the conventional norms of treaty interpretation, the Reagan Administration called all doubtful issues and some not-so-doubtful issues in the United States' favor.

At the same time, the Article seeks to enhance understanding of the choices the Reagan Administration made by placing them in the context of the domestic-law constraints, the external political pressures, the internal Administration ideology, and the myriad uncertainties regarding the body — the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal — that would ultimately pass on the treaty's interpretation. By analyzing as a whole the claims Iran brought and the conclusions the Tribunal reached, the Article also illuminates the consequences — financial as well as diplomatic — of the Reagan Administration's narrow interpretation of certain provisions of the Declarations, and then evaluates those consequences in light of the domestic costs the Reagan Administration would likely have incurred had it adopted a more balanced interpretation. This examination paints an informative picture of the varied, competing interests at the intersection of domestic law, international law, and partisan politics.

Keywords: Iran-US Claims Tribunal, Iranian hostage crisis, treaty interpretation, lame duck presidents, foreign affairs

Suggested Citation

Combs, Nancy, Carter, Reagan, and Khomeini: Presidential Transitions and International Law (2001). Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2, p. 303, 2001, William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-215, Available at SSRN:

Nancy Combs (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States
757-221-3830 (Phone)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics