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The strategic implications of the brewing Iran arms embargo crisis

A close look at the strategic landscape suggests that lifting or extending the arms embargo will have a limited security impact.

In the last few weeks, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed a new initiative to extend the arms embargo on Iran. According to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, adopted following the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, United Nations restrictions on conventional arms sales to Iran would expire after five years, on October 18, 2020.

Washington plans to claim that it legally remains a participant state in the JCPOA, which President Donald Trump officially withdrew from in May 2018. Such a claim would enable the United States to invoke “snapback” that would restore U.N. sanctions on Iran that were in place before the nuclear deal. In mid-May, Brian Hook, U.S. special representative for Iran, summed up these efforts: “The Security Council must pass a resolution to extend the arms embargo. If this effort is defeated, the Trump administration is prepared to exercise all legally available options to extend the embargo.”

Understandably, Tehran strongly denounced the plan. President Hassan Rouhani pledged a crushing response if U.S. efforts succeed. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated, “Those who muse about injecting disinfectant to ‘clean’ the Coronavirus, also argue that they are a participant in a UNSC Resolution endorsing a deal that they long ago ceased participating in.” Rhetoric aside, it is important to understand the international reaction, the essence of the American plan, and its regional and strategic implications.

Global reaction

Both Washington’s allies and adversaries have expressed opposition to extending the arms embargo. Europe is in a bind. Political stability in the Middle East, Europe’s backyard, is a major European national security interest. The three European signatories to the nuclear deal, Britain, France, and Germany, or E3, and the European Union have not endorsed President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord.

On the other hand, they have objected to some of Iran’s policies, particularly regarding ballistic missiles and the nuclear program. In January of this year, the E3 invoked the JCPOA’s dispute-resolution mechanism over Iran’s incremental steps to reduce its compliance with certain parts of the agreement. Europe has not taken part in Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. Instead, several European governments have sought to find a way to maintain trade and investment ties with Tehran.

In an effort to facilitate transactions with Tehran without violating U.S. sanctions, in January 2019 Europe established the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, and a Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement was launched a year later. Both fell short of Iran’s expectations and needs. These initiatives underscore the European powers’ overriding objectives — bringing Washington and Tehran back to the negotiating table and preserving the nuclear deal.

Unlike Europe, China and Russia have not hesitated to voice their strong opposition to the American plan. Beijing and Moscow enjoy warmer ties with Tehran than Europe. If the arms embargo lapses, it is almost certain that Iran will seek to buy Chinese and Russian weaponry. However, it is important not to overestimate the quantity and quality of these potential arms deals. It took about a decade for Moscow to deliver the S-300 missile defense system to Iran and Russia has not agreed to upgrade the system to the more advanced S-400.

Additionally, China and Russia enjoy warm strategic relations with several of Iran’s regional rivals, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Significant arms deals with Iran would not be seen favorably by these regional powers.

What does extending the embargo really mean?

Washington’s plan to extend the embargo is divorced from the reality in the region. Stated differently, if the embargo is lifted, Iran is certain not to receive substantial and sophisticated arms deals from Europe, China, or Russia for at least three reasons.

First, on the demand side, given the severe impact of the Coronavirus and the collapse of oil prices, Tehran lacks the necessary financial resources to embark on ambitious efforts to modernize its armed forces. Equally important, the nation’s financial sector, commercial banks, and central bank are under U.S. sanctions. These sanctions have significantly undermined Iran’s ability to buy basic food and medical supplies. Given these restrictions, Tehran is not in a position to finance significant arms deals. On the supply side, in 2007 the EU imposed a full arms embargo on Iran, prohibiting the sale of arms and related material of all types, including weapons, ammunition, military vehicles, equipment, and spare parts. This embargo will remain in place until 2023. In other words, regardless of UNSC Resolution 2231, Iran will continue to be under an effective European arms embargo.

Finally, the concern that Iran will buy weapons to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and other proxies elsewhere is not well-founded. The 2006 UNSC Resolution 1701 prohibits sales or the supply of arms and related material to Lebanon except as authorized by its government. The UNSC Resolution 2216 of 2015 prevents the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of arms to the Houthis.

Certainly, these embargoes can, and indeed have been violated, similar to the one imposed by the UNSC on Libya in February 2011. The bottom line, though, is Tehran will keep arming Hezbollah with or without an arms embargo. From the Iranian perspective, Hezbollah is an essential pillar of its “axis of resistance” and has restored and maintained a balance of power with Israel.

Thus, a close look at the strategic landscape suggests that lifting or extending the arms embargo will have a limited security impact. The real impact is likely to be on Iran’s domestic politics. Extending the embargo would further discredit President Rouhani and those who had urged opening to the West and the United States. Praising the nuclear deal in November 2019, President Rouhani stated, “When the embargo is lifted, we can easily buy and sell weapons. This is one of those important impacts of the nuclear agreement.”

The way forward

The embargo will expire less than three weeks before the U.S. election. It is likely that all parties would prefer not to make a decisive move before a clear winner emerges. If Vice President Biden wins, his administration is certain to reassess the nuclear deal and the entirety of U.S.-Iran relations. If President Trump wins, his administration would likely further intensify the maximum pressure strategy.

Two years ago, in May 2018, President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and imposed a strict sanctions regime on Iran. Celebrating the second anniversary of this policy, Secretary Pompeo tweeted, “The Americans are safer and the Middle East is more peaceful than if we had remained in the JCPOA.”

This policy can be evaluated by at least two different ways: first, through the economic impact it has inflicted on Iran; and second, through the strategic outcome it has generated. There is no doubt that the policy has significantly weakened the Iranian economy. But measuring the policy by the goals it has sought to achieve tells a different story. In the last two years Tehran has taken several steps to reduce its commitment to the nuclear deal. Its declared policy is still not to make the bomb, but its capabilities are on the rise. Similarly, tension in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf has further intensified.

In mid-May, Senator Dianne Feinstein called on the United States and Iran to give diplomacy a chance before “we stumble into an ill-advised and ill-fated war.” She proposed a high-level meeting between defense and foreign ministers from the two adversaries. This badly-needed dialogue is not likely to take place before the November election.

Furthermore, regional powers in good terms with both Washington and Tehran should push for a strategic dialogue and open diplomatic channels between the two nations. Political stability and economic prosperity in Iran and regional integration will go a long way in promoting peace in the Middle East and beyond.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or the policies of the Department of Defense.

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