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Is Compromise Possible For Extending UN Arms Embargo On Iran?

Iranian and US ambassadors speak briefly during UN Security Council meeting. December 19, 2019
Radio Farda is publishing a series of expert analysis and commentaries on the United States move to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran beyond October 2020.

When the JCPOA was under debate in the United States in the summer of 2015, a chief criticism put forth by skeptics was that the restrictions the deal placed on Iran were to expire over several years.

The first of these sunsets is now at hand, with the embargo on Iran’s import and export of arms set to expire in October of this year.

While President Trump’s distaste for the JCPOA is well-known, the expiration of the arms embargo would likely prove troubling for any US president. While some architects of the deal may have hoped that it would lead to a cooling of regional tensions, the agreement in fact imposes no explicit requirements on Iran to change its regional policies. Had Hillary Clinton become president in 2017, she too would likely have found herself in search of ways to maintain constraints on the sale of arms to an Iran which has shown no interest in reducing its support for regional proxies or its involvement in neighbors’ conflicts.

For this same reason, the Trump administration’s position on the arms embargo is one to which partners in Europe and the Middle East are sympathetic. While they may hesitate to say so explicitly, the current regional situation is not what Paris, London, and Berlin hoped would prevail when they agreed to lift the embargo. The concern is not philosophical – while it is unlikely (and perhaps unable) to immediately bolster its conventional forces, Iran could exploit the embargo’s end to fill gaps in its expertise, acquire technology, and pass on sophisticated weaponry to proxies, as it has done in the past.

Yet because the sunset is embedded in UN Security Council resolution 2231, which brought the JCPOA into force, another resolution would be required to formally delay it. This means that extending the embargo would require the support of Russia and China, which they have asserted they will not provide.

This may be in part due to their hope to sell arms to Iran but is also tied to their political support for Tehran and opposition to the US effort to unilaterally overturn the nuclear deal. Prior to the embargo’s imposition in 2007, Moscow and Beijing were Tehran’s primary arms suppliers, yet Iran was a minor market compared to others in the region.

If it is blocked from extending the arms embargo, the Trump administration has made clear that it will instead unravel the JCPOA entirely by exercising the deal’s “snapback” provision, which would bring not only the embargo but all previous UN sanctions back into force. If Russia, China, and European Council members assert that Washington, having withdrawn from the deal, lacks the standing to exercise snapback – as they have suggested they will do – the result could be a crisis at the Security Council that extends far beyond the Iran nuclear issue. At best, the US would regard the sanctions as having returned and would try to enforce them over others’ objections; at worst, the Trump administration may react to its counterparts’ position by taking punitive action against the Security Council itself, throwing yet another pillar of the international order into turmoil.

Barring a new negotiation between the United States and Iran, there are three potential avenues for compromise, none of them terribly promising – a political understanding with Moscow and Beijing not to sell weapons to Iran despite the embargo’s expiration; a resolution that extends the arms embargo but in a manner not linked to the JCPOA, for example in light of Iran’s failure to respect separate UN-mandated embargoes on the shipment of weapons to Yemen and Hezbollah; or for another JCPOA party to exercise snapback before the United States does so, rendering moot the question of Washington’s standing. Barring any of these outcomes, a crisis appears inevitable.

The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Radio Farda
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    Michael Singh

    Micheal Singh is the managing director at The Washington Institute for near east policy, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council (from 2005 to 2008)