US Faces Uphill Battle to Extend UN Arms Embargo on Iran
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to the media in the Press Briefing Room, at the State Department in Washington, DC, April 29, 2020. (Ronny Przysucha/US State Department)

US Faces Uphill Battle to Extend UN Arms Embargo on Iran

A ban on conventional weapons sales to the Islamic Republic is slated to be lifted in October in accordance with stipulations in the nuclear deal

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to extend an arms embargo on Iran that is scheduled to be lifted in October in accordance with stipulations in the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal.

“The world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism should not be allowed to buy and sell conventional weapons,” Pompeo said in a statement.

He made his appeal after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) last Wednesday claimed to have successfully launched a military satellite into orbit, which requires “dual-use” technologies that can also be used to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, one of the primary delivery mechanisms for a nuclear warhead.

“All peace-loving nations must … join together to constrain Iran’s dangerous missile programs,” Pompeo added.

If the arms embargo expires, “terrorist organizations like the IRGC, Hizbullah [and] Hamas … are the likely beneficiaries,” according to a statement provided to The Media Line by the Washington-based United Against Nuclear Iran organization. The group, which describes itself as non-partisan, is adamantly opposed to the 2015 agreement.

“Additionally, it may provide Iran with plausible deniability given Tehran’s ability, effective in 2020, to just purchase foreign weapons and deliver them to Iranian-organized proxies. Iran can claim the weapons were not Iranian in origin and disclaim responsibility,” the statement noted.

In a somewhat strange twist of fate, American media reported that Pompeo is preparing a legal argument that the US is still a party to the nuclear accord, despite President Donald Trump’s decision in May 2018 to nix the deal and re-impose economic sanctions on the mullah regime.

The seemingly revised US strategy is ostensibly meant to provide the administration with greater standing to pressure the UNSC to extend the arms embargo.

“With all due respect to the Americans, there is an inherent contradiction: you cannot withdraw from the nuclear deal and then say that you are still a participant,” Prof. Meir Litvack, Director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.

“Moreover, the US cannot impose its will on the UNSC because Russia and China also have veto power. Given the deep divide between Washington and Beijing over the coronavirus, there is little chance that China will cooperate on this issue. Regarding Russia, if [President Vladimir] Putin has an opportunity to poke the US in the eye, so to speak, he will do so.”

Nevertheless, Prof. Litvack suggested that US sanctions, coupled with the devastation wrought by the pandemic on the Iranian public, could cause the mullahs to be “cautious” before finalizing huge weapons deals.

“We have to wait and see what kind of arms the Iranians will seek to purchase,” he said. “Why would they waste money on tanks when they are not going to invade [another nation]? Perhaps they will purchase fighter jets, which could have strategic value but Iran already has an advanced missile program that provides it with similar capabilities.

“If they move to upgrade their navy, though, this could enable Tehran to exert greater influence in the Gulf,” Litvack concluded.

Indeed, the latest developments are taking place on the backdrop of renewed tensions between Washington and Tehran, which escalated last week when the IRGC dispatched numerous speedboats to swarm US ships that were partaking in an exercise in international waters in the Gulf.

In response, President Donald Trump authorized the country’s military to use force if American vessels are targeted or their operations are interrupted.

For his part, the US leader has described the nuclear deal as “horrible” and “laughable,” citing as a primary reason its various “sunset clauses” that over the next decade will elapse and therefore enable the Islamic Republic to freely advance aspects of its atomic program while at the same time enhancing its conventional military capabilities.

President Trump has repeatedly contended that the Iranians would use the latter opportunity to expand their “nefarious” activities throughout the Middle East, including in Iraq, which has become the primary battleground for tit-for-tat military exchanges between the US and Iran.

An assessment by the US Defense Intelligence Agency last November suggested that Tehran is already targeting military supplies from Russia such as Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets, Yakovlev Yak-130 trainers and T-90 tanks. The Islamic Republic is also purportedly interested in acquiring the sophisticated S-400 missile defense system, which could be used to guard its nuclear facilities from aerial attack.

Previous reports have suggested that negotiations between Iran and Russia on an arms agreement worth up to $10 billion have been in the works since the nuclear deal was finalized.

The US defense report also warned that the Islamic Republic could look to China to upgrade its aging air, land and sea forces. In 2016, Tehran and Beijing forged a “comprehensive strategic partnership” that called for greater bilateral military cooperation and the transfer of “equipment and technology.”

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks weapons transactions, China was previously among the top three arms dealers to Iran. Overall, the Middle East is Beijing’s largest market for arms, with sales totaling nearly $11 billion between 2013 and 2017.

“To paraphrase [the late Italian thinker Niccolò] Machiavelli, you need three things to fight a war: money, money and money – and the Iranians have none,” Dr. Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Media Line.

Lerman, a former deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, believes that “whatever the UN decides, the Iranians will not easily be in a position to buy arms because it will be difficult for the regime to prioritize this as [citizens] are dying on the streets.”

Furthermore, he emphasized that the international community’s primary concern remains Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, and therefore the current US push “is mainly to indicate that, as far as it is concerned, Tehran is not a legitimate actor.

“It is very important for the Trump Administration to show allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia that it is keeping Iran in the doghouse,” Lerman said.

“I do not think the expiration of the UN embargo has immense practical consequences. What we are seeing is a symbolic dance in the broader geopolitical standoff.”

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