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"There's A Difference Between What You Want And What You Can Afford," Says Arms Expert On Expiring UN Embargo

IRAN -- An Iranian military vehicle exites from an Iranian navy warship during a military exercise in the Gulf, near strategic strait of Hormuz, September 10, 2020

As part of the conditions negotiated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, the United Nations arms embargo on Iran is set to expire on October 18, 2020. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on September 19 that the United States will introduce the so-called "snapback" of these sanctions, adding,” “If UN member states fail to fulfill their obligations to implement these sanctions, the United States is prepared to use our domestic authorities to impose consequences for those failures and ensure that Iran does not reap the benefits of UN-prohibited activity.”

Radio Farda’s Hannah Kaviani spoke to Pieter Wezeman, a Senior Researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, about the end of the U.N. arms embargo, Iran’s weapons import and export activities and the diplomacy around this issue.

Radio Farda: Were you surprised that the end of the UN Arms Embargo was negotiated as a part of the JCPOA agreement?

Wezeman: No, I wasn't surprised about that they had to come to some sort of agreement. And it was quite clear that maintaining an embargo on the basis of suspicions that Iran was working on a nuclear weapons capability and then agreeing that JCPOA, the nuclear agreement would basically solve that problem, and then to continue an embargo on the basis of that assumption. That wouldn't work. Of course, there had to be an other reason for maintaining an arms embargo. You can't maintain any sanction, if the reason for that a sanction has been removed.

Radio Farda: How effective was the U.N. arms embargo on Iran since its implementation more than 13 years ago?

Wezeman: Yeah, we talked about how effective it was, we can look at how whether or not countries actually abided by it. And of course, we can also ask the question whether or not that embargo or the sanction package as a whole did put so much pressure on Iran that they have had to give into the international demand regarding its nuclear program. Now, if we look at the implementation of the embargo, it just seems as if there have been very few, if any real breaches of it. I haven't seen any information that really shows that these supplier countries have continued with supplying any of the major arms that would not have been allowed after 2010.

Just to be clear about this, the embargo on Iran has never been complete, it was still allowed to supply certain military equipment, for example, air defense systems and could still be supplied, and that was also done by Russia a few years ago. The other way around, of course, is another thing. Iran has been in breach of the embargo of arms exports by Iran itself. Many, many times that's quite clear from different reporting, including from the reporting by UN panels of experts

Radio Farda: Are you referring to the supply of weapons to the Lebanese Hezbollah and other actors in the region?

Wezeman: Yeah, there's a whole range of cases where it's quite clear that Iran has been supplying arms to groups outside Iran, which is clearly in contravention of the UN embargo.

Radio Farda: What are the United States and other European countries concerned more about, the import of weapons to Iran or Iran's weapons exports?

Wezeman: I think by now for European countries, it is primarily the (idea) that Iran is supplying arms to a range of primarily nonstate groups, which in the mind of the European states, do undermine stability and security in the region. Obviously, there are other states in the region, which do the same thing which apply weapons to, for example, rebels in Libya. And that is, of course, also of concern.

But when it comes to Iran, it's primarily the concern of Iran being involved in trying to co-opt different groups within the region to expand its influence. And that is very much against the full US foreign policy and security objectives of European states. I think for the US, it goes clearly beyond that. For the US, the question is also very much about how Iran itself can now get access to new, more modern, much better equipment than they have at this point in time. At least that is their assumption which they have.

Radio Farda: When the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks, he mentions usually the Chinese tanks and the Russian defense systems. In your opinion what arms would Iran be interested in purchasing on the international market?

Wezeman: Yeah, Iran has been cut off from the international arms market for at least a decade, its armed forces have equipment, which is generally outdated or even completely obsolete, you could say much of its equipment dates back to the 90s, the 80s, or even the 70s. So it is quite clear that from a military perspective, you would expect Iran to be interested in basically, any type of military equipment, new modern military equipment that they can lay their hands on. One would expect that they would maybe prioritize, for example, the air force, which really consist of really old planes primarily, again, planes from the 80s and 70s, even planes, which in the past have been supplied by the US. So that's about 40 years ago. But also in all the other areas.

Iran is really from a military perspective in need of upgrading of its armed forces. But there's a difference between what you want and what you can afford. It is important to say that already before 2010, when there was no arms embargo on Iran, when China and Russia were willing to supply weapons to Iran, and could do so there was nothing which stood in their way, legally seen at least, even then Iran didn't really invest that much in buying kind of advanced new equipment. What it acquired at that time was not comparable to what other countries in the region, let's say Saudi Arabia, UAE, would acquire.

Radio Farda: In recent years Iran has been advocating to prioritize domestic production of weapons but Iran also faces financial vows that prevent it from making big purchases. According to you what is main reason behind Iran not purchasing weapons on the international market?

Wezeman: It's basically both, it's a financial hurdle, the military spending of Iran is by far not as big as similar countries have a similar size, again, Turkey or Saudi Arabia have so much more to spend. That has inhibited the possibilities that Iran has to import modern new equipment. Now, of course, they have also looked because they had didn't have access to weapons from other countries, they have looked at ways to produce their own weapon systems. And they have been reasonably successful in the area of missiles where you can, you could say, produce, missiles design and produce them relatively easy, and produce missiles that are functional in the modern battlefield.

But if you want to do the same for much more advanced or sophisticated types of equipment, such as combat aircraft, or submarines, or even tanks, this is so much more difficult to do an especially it's very hard to do for a country by itself and a country which clearly doesn't have the industrial development of, let's say, a major European country, or Russia, or even to some extent, a number of other countries like maybe South Africa or South Korea. So they really faced both financial problems when they want to import and technical hurdles when they want to make themselves.

Radio Farda: Now Russia and China were very much against extending this arms embargo. They voiced it in their vote at the UN Security Council when the US resolution didn't get enough votes for the extension of the embargo. Do you think that China and Russia would be willing to risk secondary US sanctions that the US plans to implement if they go ahead with exporting arms to Iran?

Wezeman: I wouldn't be surprised if they would. I'm not sure what kind of equipment they are willing to supply and to which extent they are and it's a willing to give Iran any friendship prices. So I would almost expect that whatever they will supply is not necessarily going to be that much, because Iran can't really afford, that much. But I do think that they are not particularly afraid of any sanctions that the US would want to put on them because of any supplies of arms to Iran, they will argue that they are in full, right. They might even make a point out of that and it's a bit hard to know what those US sanctions would be. But of course, we have to realize that basically, all Russian and Chinese arms producing companies are already under US sanctions. So in that regard, it's very hard for us to impose anything more. So we'll just have to be seen what else they would do to try to punish China and Russia, and also to which extent, they're more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else by doing so.

Radio Farda: If China and Russia would conduct weapons trade with Iran would they do so openly or covertly?

Wezeman: No, they would do that openly as to some extent, they've already done with those systems, which were allowed to be supplied under the existing sanctions. So for example, the Russia did supply very openly air defense systems, yes, to Iran a few years back, they were very open about it. And very important, they were also very keen on explaining that they were following the sanctions in detail that they were not in breach, that they had thought this through very well.

And I think they will do this now, too, they will say, that cannot be a snapback that doesn't work if the you have left the JCPOA. We have the right to supply arms and we will do so the question and still remained, as I say, to which extent they were willing to kind give Iran anything for a low price, or if they will just ask market prices. The other aspect of this too, is of course, that they might be quite careful with supplying arms to Iran, they might do it openly, but they might not supply Iran the most advanced equipment and in and not in very large numbers.

Radio Farda: Why would that be a factor?

Wezeman: Also, because they might be looking at the reaction from the very wealthy, influential oil rich countries in the region to and it may very well want to kind of show to Saudi Arabia, that they are willing to get into partnerships with them or with the UAE. And that might be partnerships in the field of arms supplies or it might also be other economic partnerships, which you can imagine are planned.

Radio Farda: Now talking about the weapons export from Iran and UN arms embargo. Will Iran be able to benefit by exporting weapons to the world?

Wezeman: They might want to, but I don't think there's very much demand for Iranian military products. That is both for political reasons, many countries would not want to have it because they don't trust Iran, or they might be afraid of any US sanctions, which most likely will happen then. Secondly, there's also the issue of the questionable quality of whatever Iran can produce in terms of military equipment. So I don't think this will be a major source of income for Iran for anytime, in the near future. It remains primarily a tool for Iran, to maintain its alliances with both non state actors, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and maybe also others, and in some cases, also with state actors, for example, in the case of Syria,

Radio Farda: We have an announcement coming on September 20 at 8 p.m. New York time when the US would say that the snapback is completed and then we have this October 18 date when the UN arms embargo expires. Which one would you say is more significant?

Wezeman: I think it's the one which they define all the formal ending of embargo in October, which is going to be the most important. Although at least from when looking at what this means for Iran directly, what happens tomorrow is going to be extremely important for understanding how the P-5, how the UN Security Council will be able to operate in the future, we'll be able to agree on anything. because of course, if if there is a major schism between the different countries in the UN Security Council, and especially again, the P-5, maybe including Germany, I think this is going to be the real big question.

How can you continue with the rule of international law, if there are countries which have a very different interpretation than most others? Because that still seems to be the case when it comes to the snapback option which the US claims is viable and is their right, where the others clearly are completely against that and say that is against the rules, and also against the spirit of these kinds of agreements.

Radio Farda: Since the end of the UN arms embargo on October 18 is really significant, do you think that any of the European countries could come to an agreement with Russia and China to extend the embargo in some fashion?

Wezeman: I find it hard to believe that is the case, but then again, I don't know what's going on behind the scenes. There is, of course, the fact that if the Europeans would argue that there has to be a new embargo. So one, which is completely separate from the embargo, that we have now, an embargo that is not linked to the nuclear program in Iran and embargo that is linked to the reasons that has been put forward by the US, too, which is that Iran has been undermining stability and security in the region, by supplying arms to in particular actors which are under a UN arms embargo itself.

So that's Hezbollah in Lebanon, to be precise and it is the Houthis in Yemen, because both countries, various others are clear UN Security Council resolutions, which say that it is absolutely forbidden to supply weapons to non-state actors in Lebanon and Yemen. So these are the kind of arguments that could be put forward to suggest a new separate embargo on different grounds than the original one, the one which expires October,

Radio Farda: Do you think there could be an embargo that would bad Iran's export but allowed Iran to import weapons?

Wezeman: No, because the ban on the export to non-state actors in Lebanon and Yemen already exists. So if the EU would want to do anything, they might want to suggest something which relates to arms exports to Iran, and then it has to be seen to which extent China and Russia are willing to accept that right now. Also, in the light of the way the US is behaved. They just might want to should that they don't accept the behavior of the US is more important than showing that they don't accept the behavior of Iran.

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    Hannah Kaviani

    Hannah Kaviani is a Radio Farda staffer based in Prague, since 2008. She followed the nuclear negotiations between Iran and 6 world powers between 2013 and 2015 and covers the aftermath of Iran deal.