Analysis: The arms embargo on Iran ends this weekend – what next? 

A decade-old ban on the sale of conventional arms to Iran will come to an end this Sunday, potentially opening the way for Russia and China to assist the Islamic Republic in a major, potentially hugely destabilising, expansion and advancement of its military capability.

Since 2010, the supply of a host of weaponry – including tanks, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, and warships – to Iran has been barred by the United Nations.

However, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal set a five-year countdown for the lifting of the arms embargo. A further UN ban on the supply of ballistic missiles to the Tehran is due to expire in three year’s time, while a bar will also remain in place on Iran buying or selling goods and technology that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems. A separate EU ban on the sale of weapons to Iran, which was introduced in 2007, will remain in place until at least 2023.

During the negotiations running up to the deal, Iran – backed by Russia and China – wanted the bar on arms sales to be immediately lifted. The five-year timeframe agreed by the parties to the deal – the US, Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany, Britain and the European Union – thus represented a compromise which was also designed to incentivise Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Two interrelated factors – Iran’s non-compliance with the agreement and the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from it – have reshaped the landscape upon which debate surrounding the future of the arms embargo has been fought in recent months.

Iranian non-compliance

In its latest report, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported last month that Iran continues to expand its stockpile of enriched uranium. According to the IAEA, Iran now possesses about 2,105 kg of uranium enriched to less than 4.5 percent, which is roughly ten times the 202 kg limit set by the deal, with 4.5 percent purity exceeding the 3.67 percent level allowed by the agreement. Experts note, however, that while Iran’s breaches are troubling, its “output of enriched uranium has remained fairly steady over the course of 2020, demonstrating that Tehran is not accelerating production”.

Moreover, in breach of UN resolutions going back nearly 15 years, Iran has developed a ballistic missile and missile defence capacity even despite the embargo. In August, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran had developed two new missiles (pictured) which, it claimed, had far greater ranges than its current weaponry. His defence minister, Amir Hatami, said that “particular attention was paid to increasing the range” of the missiles. “In the field of solid fuel ballistic missiles, we have today reached a range of 1,400 km [870 miles],” he claimed.

Iran has made clear that, as Rouhani put it last December, the lifting of the arms embargo would be a “huge political success” for Tehran.

“Opening the gates”

As Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies reported this week: “The impending removal of the embargo is expected to open the gates to the flow of high-quality arms to Iran. The first priority for Iran will probably be aircraft and advanced air defence systems. Iran’s air force is currently built on outdated American planes that were purchased under the Shah, Chinese planes that were supplied during and after the Iran-Iraq war, and Russian planes supplied mainly in the early 1990s.”

In readiness for the lifting of the embargo, Rouhani’s government increased military spending to an estimated $20.5bn in April. However, according to an analysis prepared by BICOM and published last week, this objective was based on targets and prices for oil exports that the country appears far from meeting. Iran’s economic plight – the result of ever-tighter US sanctions imposed since 2018; its huge spending to back the Assad regime in Syria and other expansionist adventures throughout the Middle East; and the fallout from the covid-19 pandemic – has “limited Iran’s capacity to reach the same defence spending levels of the early 2010s which reached over $30bn”. In its study, the INSS agrees that Iran’s weakening economic situation can be “expected to limit its purchasing ability”.

Although the precise amount it will be able to spend on arms when the embargo is lifted is unclear, Iran will not lack powerful friends willing to sell it advanced weaponry. Since the signing of the JCPOA Iran has entered military cooperation agreements with both Russia and China. The Islamic republic is also reported to be considering a $10 billion deal to import Russian T-90 tanks, artillery systems, planes and helicopters.

More significantly, last week, Russia’s ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan said that his country would be willing to see the Islamic Republic its S-400 missile defence system. “We have said since the very first day that there will be no problem for selling weapons to Iran from October 19,” he told an Iranian newspaper. “We have provided Iran with the S-300. Russia does not have any problem to deliver the S-400 to Iran, and it did not have any problem before, either,” he suggested. The S-300 missile defence system was delivered to Iran in 2016 after the signing of the nuclear deal. “We have said since the very first day that there will be no problem for selling weapons to Iran from October 19,” the ambassador added.

Highly advanced, the S-400 system is thought likely to pose a serious threat to US-manufactured aircraft used by both the US and its regional allies. Israel fears, argues the BICOM briefing, that “the arrival of advanced air-defence systems could offer Iran a sense of immunity and encourage it to accelerate its nuclear programme”.

Dzhagaryan’s comments about the S-400 system follow a suggestion by Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, last month that “new opportunities will emerge in our cooperation with Iran” after the arms embargo expires.

Such “opportunities” could pose huge risks both to Israel and the wider stability of the Middle East. A senior Iranian military commander, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, recently told the BBC’s Persia service that his country has spent $20bn on its regional activities since 2016. A 2019 calculation by BICOM estimated that Iran’s lavish spending on its various proxy armies and terror groups throughout the Middle East included $700m per year to Hezbollah; $100m+ per year to the Houthis in Yemen; up to $1bn per year to Shia militias in Iraq; and $100m per year to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian Territories.

“The export of arms from Iran is expected to join a further development of concern to Israel, as Iran is the main supplier of weapons to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad,” warns the INSS. “The flow of new weapon systems to Iran will enable it to increase the scope and standard of the arms reaching these organisations.”

International deadlock

Unsurprisingly, the US, Israel, and the Gulf states are all keen that the arms embargo should be extended, which is also the stated position of the British government. However, attempts to do so have been hampered by both the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and opposition from Russia and China.

The Trump administration’s fierce determination to keep the arms embargo in place has won rare bipartisan backing in Washington: in May, 387 members of Congress, nearly 90 percent of the House of Representatives (including, notably, staunch critics of Israel like Ihan Omar), urged the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to push for an extension.

But in August, the US was humiliated at the UN Security Council when it managed to win the support of only one other member – the Dominican Republic – for a motion that would have extended the arms embargo indefinitely. Britain abstained on the vote.

Following its defeat, the US announced that it was triggering the JCPOA’s “snapback” sanctions process, suggesting that Iranian non-compliance with the agreement should lead to the reimposition of all UN sanctions that were lifted under the 2015 deal. However, given the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, the UN opted not to initiate Pompeo’s request. Last month, the US further upped the ante by unilaterally reimposing all the sanctions and declaring that it expects UN member states to do likewise, warning that there would be “consequences” for those failing to ensure that “Iran does not reap the benefits of UN-prohibited activity”.

Last week, the US underlined the seriousness of its intent by imposing new sanctions on 18 banks due to their links to Iran and the Iranian military.

However, the US’ claim that – despite its withdrawal from the agreement – it remains a signatory to UN Security Council 2231, which put the nuclear deal into force, and therefore has the right to initiate “snackback” sanctions, has won little international support. Russia argues that the US’ decision to quit the JCOPOA makes it ineligible to reimpose sanctions, while the E3 – Britain, France and Germany – have said that the US’ unilateral action had no legal standing. “The United States of America ceased to be a participant in the JCPOA following their withdrawal from the agreement on 8 May, 2018. Consequently, the notification received from the United States and transmitted to the member states of the [UN] Security Council, has no legal effect. It follows that any decision or action which would be taken on the basis of this procedure or its outcome have no legal effect,” the three European signatories to the nuclear deal said in their statement.

The British government’s position – that it supports extension of the arms embargo but couldn’t support the US’ UN resolution in August because it would not win the support of Russia and China – has been criticised from within its own ranks. Last week, the honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel, Lord Polak, labelled the UK’s abstention in the vote “an error of judgment”. “China and Russia were always going to veto to support Iran, three countries who are not known for honouring gentlemen’s agreements,” he said in the House of Lords. “We should have voted with the US to make it clear that we oppose Iran accessing arms thorough the legitimacy of the UN.”

Disquiet about Britain’s approach is also apparent on the opposition benches. In August, Labour peer Lord Turnberg wrote a joint letter with Polak to The Times calling for a tougher stance. “To stop Iran from increasing its arms capabilities and further destabilising the Middle East, the UK must unite the US and Europe against Iranian aggression by extending the arms embargo, demanding Iran sign up to the arms trade treaty and proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps,” they wrote. “The UK has never stomached appeasement and it must act now to confront Iran’s terrorism-sponsoring regime.”

The government appears to be bent on inaction, however, with Foreign Office minister Lord Ahmad telling the House of Lords last week: “We are addressing systematic Iranian non-compliance and Iran must engage seriously with our concerns. We remain committed to countering Iranian proliferation to non-state actors. The EU’s arms embargo and UN’s  ballistic missile restrictions will remain in place.”

Britain’s position reflects European wariness that the US’ reimposition of sanctions risks Iran abandoning the JCPOA. Moreover, there is likely to be little action taken until after next month’s US presidential election. Joe Biden has stated that he will rejoin the JCPOA if Iran returns to compliance with it. At the same time, Biden also says he wants to make the deal “longer and stronger” so that it also encompasses “Iran’s other destabilising actions” in the region. That position may be far more amenable to Europe, but Iran, Russia and China may prove less accommodating.