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Watering Down Iran Arms Embargo Sets A Troubling Precedent

Iran-made Bavar-373 air-defense missile system is displayed during a ceremony in Tehran, August 22, 2019. FILE PHOTO
Iran-made Bavar-373 air-defense missile system is displayed during a ceremony in Tehran, August 22, 2019. FILE PHOTO
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.

On October 18, 2020, the international arms embargo on Iran under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 will expire. This concession by the P5+1 was part of the broader negotiations that led to the inking of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA was sold as a nuclear agreement—temporary restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for nuclear-related sanctions relief. As a result, the inclusion of a sunset provision pertaining to conventional weaponry with the lack of any binding reciprocal Iranian pledge in changing its malign regional posture was most troublesome.

The Stakes

It is important not to underestimate how significant October 18, 2020 is for Iran. President Rouhani has called the expiration of Resolution 2231’s arms embargo “a huge political success.”

Equally problematic is the knowledge and materiel which Iran stands to gain after October 18. For example, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimates that Tehran will be able to “purchase advanced fourth generation fighter aircraft” as well as “develop and field more capable UAVs [drones], including armed platforms.” A new report from U.N. Secretary-General underscores the danger. It found that drones used in the May and September 2019 attacks on Saudi Arabian energy infrastructure—with the latter knocking out around half of the Kingdom’s oil output—were of Iranian origin.

According to U.S. assessments, Iran has relied on its ballistic missile arsenal for long-range strike capability, as a means of compensating for its aging air force. Thus, introduction of a Sukhoi-30 fighter jet into the Iranian armed forces would represent a force multiplier for the regime. Indeed, Tehran previously negotiated over acquiring Sukhoi Su-30SM jets, a sale which was never concluded amid the requirement that the U.N. Security Council would have to approve the deal under Resolution 2231. The expiration of the arms embargo eliminates that guard rail.

While some observers argue there are other localized arms embargoes on the books—like U.N. Security Council Resolutions 2216 and 1701 on Yemen and Lebanon, respectively—that prevent Iranian arms exports to its partners and proxies, the elimination of a global embargo under 2231 remains particularly threatening because those resolutions don’t guard against Iranian imports of advanced weapons systems from Russia and China. That’s not to mention that Iran is already in noncompliance with resolutions like 2216, and there is evidence it is expanding weaponry exports—most recently in Libya, with the presence of Iranian anti-tank guided missiles. The lapsing of Resolution 2231’s restrictions on arms transfers would thus be rewarding Iran for the very behavior the United Nations continues to proscribe.

U.S. Strategy

Washington is likely to follow a carefully calibrated approach to renewing the arms embargo on Iran. It is currently circulating a draft resolution to members of the U.N. Security Council. While Russia and China have predictably denounced the attempt to extend the arms embargo, less clear is whether either or both are prepared to veto. Russia abstained from voting on Resolution 2216. The U.S. government is also relying on European discomfort with the expiration of the arms embargo to build transatlantic consensus.

Another variable to monitor is the rotation of the U.N. Security Council presidency. Russia is set to assume the presidency in October—the same month that the arms embargo expires. In order to avoid that eventuality, the United States could formally act before October, when it has more influence with the country presiding over the Security Council—like France in June, Germany in July, and Niger in September.

If efforts to extend the arms embargo are unsuccessful, the United States has signaled it will pursue snapback sanctions on Iran. It will likely first seek to have one of its allies—the most likely candidate is the United Kingdom—pursue the snapback option to avoid a confrontation. But if that path fails, the U.S. government will contend that despite withdrawal from the JCPOA, it retains rights under paragraph 10 of Resolution 2231, which defines the United States as a “JCPOA participant” without qualification. Russia and others will argue that a 1971 International Court of Justice Opinion says that under international law, “a party which disowns or does not fulfill its own obligations cannot be recognized as retaining the rights which it claims to derive from the relationship.” But a plain reading of Resolution 2231 counsels otherwise.

In the end, the leading state-sponsor of terrorism is only months away from the expiration of an arms embargo. In recent days, the Wall Street Journal reported that European powers are exploring a potential compromise to extend the arms embargo on Iran—with Tehran being allowed to purchase some weapons, but prohibiting key systems from being sold, alongside an extension of export restrictions for 12 months. But such an effort creates a troubling precedent in watering down the existing import embargo, especially at a time when Iran is violating the JCPOA.

The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Radio Farda
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    Jason M. Brodsky

    Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and is on Twitter. He previously worked at the Wilson Center as special assistant to the Director, President and CEO and as a research associate in its Middle East Program. @JasonMBrodsky