A view of the reactor building at the Bushehr nuclear power plant as the first fuel is loaded, on August 21, 2010 in southern Iran.
IIPA via Getty Images
In less than two months, the decade-long United Nations arms embargo on Iran is set to end. Letting this happen would be a catastrophic mistake, as it would allow the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, actively pursuing nuclear capability, once again to obtain weapons from Russia and China. Allowing weapons sales to Iran would not only hurt the United States and our allies, but would destabilize the region, giving the Iranian regime access to planes, tanks and other weapons it needs to defend its nuclear production sites, oppress its people, and support its proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
Imposed in 2010 by the U.N. Security Council because of Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear capability, the current arms embargo has made it harder for the Iranian regime to pursue its malign agenda abroad. Nonetheless, the Iranian military has exported violence with deadly effectiveness. From direct strikes on Saudi oil facilities to proxy attacks killing American soldiers in Iraq in recent years, the Iranian government has continued aggressive action, even in the midst of the global weapons ban. And this doesn’t even account for the tens of thousands of civilians killed in conflicts stoked by the Iranian-supported terrorist groups like Hezbollah and organizations leading the civil wars in Syria and Yemen.
One might credibly ask why weapons shipments could restart by Halloween, and who thinks this is a good—or even acceptable—idea. This all goes back to the unwise “deal” struck by the Obama administration in 2010. That deal—which even under the Obama administration’s analysis wasn’t a binding legal agreement but simply an unsigned “political commitment”—provided for the lifting of the arms embargo on Iran in five years, but only if Iran complied with its obligations. The U.N.—at the Obama administration’s request—so directed in a Security Council resolution.
Critically, that resolution—which didn’t make the entire nuclear deal binding—also provides that if a named party—like the United States—asserts that Iran is out of compliance, all of the U.N. restrictions, including the arms embargo, automatically “snap back” into place. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already initiated this process by notifying the U.N. Security Council that the United States believes Iran is not complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Iran has long been out of compliance with the deal. From the outset, the Iranian regime transgressed, overproducing heavy water (a nuclear fuel cycle component), exceeding limits on uranium centrifuges, and imposing limits on nuclear inspections. The Iranian violations have gotten even more blatant recently, with Iran increasing its stocks of enriched uranium by nearly 10x from over a year ago and more than 50% since the start of the Covid pandemic alone.
And yet the international community seems willing to give Iran the benefit of a deal it is plainly violating. In August, the U.N. Security Council took up extending the arms embargo. The vote failed, with 11 of 15 nations abstaining from the vote, including all of our European allies. This stunning lack of fortitude is perhaps unsurprising coming from the pliant and fatigued Europeans, but makes little sense, particularly given that in January, the U.K., France, and Germany all formally complained that Iran was in clear violation of the deal.
Even though the U.S., acting alone, can legally trigger snapback under the U.N. resolution, American adversaries like Iran, Russia, and China argue that we have lost the right to do so because the Trump administration—wisely in our view—withdrew from the deal in 2018. That is incorrect as a matter of law. While the U.S. may have left the deal, under the U.N. resolution, it still has the right, as a named party, to trigger snapback. Nothing the U.S. or anyone else does with respect to the deal itself can change the text of the U.N. resolution. Knowing this, our opponents have argued unfairness; namely, that the United States shouldn’t get the benefit of the snap back provision since we’ve left the deal. However, our continued adherence to the deal is neither at issue nor relevant. What matters is the independent and unambiguous text of the resolution, with which the United States—unlike Iran—is in full compliance.
Of course, invoking snapback won’t do a whole lot unless our erstwhile allies comply with the reinstated arms embargo and compel others to do so as well. While they may not have the fortitude to vote up or down on the ban itself, surely the Europeans must see how critical it is that the Iranian regime not have free access to weapons. They need look only as far as the humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen to see what happens when the Iranian military has its way.
Finally, if the Europeans are under some misimpression that the U.S. position might change after the November elections, we think they are mistaken. After all, it is the rare American voter who thinks Iran ought to have access to more weapons and, to the extent the candidates’ positions are unclear, surely both will make their views apparent during the upcoming debates. Indeed, each could focus the minds of our shaky allies by simply asking whether they wish to do business with Iran’s $450 billion economy, or with our more than $20 trillion economy. Iran’s ability to obtain weapons must remain restricted and now is the time for us—and our allies—to act.
Michael B. Mukasey is the former attorney general of the United States and the former chief judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. He serves on the board of advisors for the National Security Institute at GMU’s Scalia Law School. Jamil N. Jaffer is the former chief counsel and senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and served in senior national security roles in the Bush Justice Department and White House. He is the founder and executive director of the National Security Institute and an assistant professor at GMU’s Scalia Law School.