Edward CarneyOctober 19, 2020
Sunday marks the formal expiration of a UN arms embargo on the Islamic Republic of Iran, but it still remains to be seen whether the relevant restrictions will actually be lifted in practice.
The United States had vigorously campaigned for an extension of the embargo, albeit with limited success. A Security Council vote in September garnered support for the U.S. proposal from only one of the council’s rotating members: the Dominican Republic. And even if other U.S. allies had joined in voting for the extension, they would have certainly been vetoed by Russia and China, two of the body’s five permanent members and two of the nations most likely to participate in an emerging Iranian arms trade.
Tehran’s Illusions over Lifting Arms Embargo
The prospect of exchanges with these eastern powers was eagerly highlighted by the Iranian government in advance of Sunday’s deadline. In a weekly press briefing on Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh declared that October 18 would be “the day of U.S. defeat.” And in a subsequent interview with Newsweek, the spokesperson for the Iranian mission to the UN argued that the ostensible failure of U.S. efforts was a sign of growing American isolation in the face of a strategy that was meant to isolate Iran.
“It is abundantly clear that the UN – and the overwhelming majority of its member states – reject the U.S.’s so-called maximum pressure policy on Iran,” said Alireza Miryousefi. But be that as it may, there is little expectation that those same countries will actively stand against American efforts to maintain such pressure via measures that include the arms embargo.
After the failure of its proposal to the Security Council, the White House quickly put a back-up plan into action, invoking the “snapback” provision of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in order to declare the re-imposition of all UN sanctions that had been suspended under that deal.
This plan was similarly rejected by fellow signatories of the agreement formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In their view, the U.S. waived its right to invoke the provision when President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement in May 2018. But even though this can be expected to prevent the embargo and related sanctions from going back onto the books, it may ultimately be sufficient for the U.S. to simply act as if they have done so.
The Ayatollahs Count on Europeans as Their Savior
French, and German, and to a lesser extent British opposition to the American strategy is a matter of public record. But their formal rejection of the embargo extension does not presuppose that they will actually take steps to prevent the U.S. from trying to enforce it. In fact, there is a clear precedent for them to not do so. And this extends to much of the international community.
As the U.S. re-imposed and then expanded its unilateral sanctions following its JCPOA withdrawal, it was regularly reported that countries with trade ties to both the U.S. and Iran were reducing or entirely severing their ties to the latter, rather than risking U.S. enforcement actions or loss of access to much more valuable American markets.
The same pattern may very well repeat in the context of the arms embargo and other UN sanctions, with various governments formally denying those sanctions’ legitimacy but effectively upholding them anyway.
Nonetheless, the Iranian government continued to present a confident and even boastful tone in the final days before the embargo’s technical expiration date. Toward that end, officials hinted that some prospective weapons vendors would be eager to take advantage of that expiration either because they intend to expressly defy U.S. enforcement or because they believe themselves capable of engaging in trade with the Islamic Republic without putting other forms of global commerce at risk.
“Iran has many friends and trading partners,” said Miryousefi in his further remarks to Newsweek. And according to him, at least some of those partners are eager to contribute to Iran’s “robust domestic arms industry” and “ensure its defense requirements against foreign aggression.”
This claim was arguably lent some additional credence earlier in the month when the Russian ambassador to Iran publicly mulled over the notion of selling an advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system to the Islamic Republic.
This, Levan Jagarian determined, would be “no problem” for Moscow. And those remarks recall attention to the fact that Russian authorities had previously demonstrated their eagerness to participate in an Iranian arms trade by selling the marginally less advanced S-300 missile system.
Controversy over that sale erupted even before nuclear negotiations concluded with the signing of the JCPOA in 2015. The mere promise of that deal was initially viewed by Russia as reason enough to move forward with the sale, which had been arranged years earlier but then put on pause by the multilateral sanctions targeting Tehran’s nuclear program.
However, it also bears mentioning that when fellow participants in the nuclear negotiations protested, the sale remained delayed for several more months, with installation of the new missile defense system concluding only in 2017. This all goes to show that Russia certainly takes a favorable view of engaging in arms sales with the Islamic Republic but is not insensitive to Western pressures aimed at mitigating or halting those sales.
Some expert commentary on the present situation even suggests that Moscow’s sensitivity has increased since 2017, as the country has grown more cash-strapped while also concluding outstanding deals with Iran which had been put on pause during times when UN sanctions were still in full effect. Under those circumstances, Russia may be less open to the sort of barter agreements that are often used in sanctions-evasion schemes to avoid interaction with the American financial system.
And even if U.S. sanctions enforcement were not a concern, serious questions would remain about Iran’s ability to pay for Russian arms, considering that a longstanding Iranian financial crisis has been made exponentially worse by the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign.
On the other hand, Iran has variously sought to downplay the effectiveness of that campaign, by portraying itself as finding new sources of revenue that are independent of American markets.
Tehran Looks for Iraqis’ Aids
In one recent example, the head of Iran’s Central Bank declared that a pending agreement would unlock Iranian funds from Iraqi banks, where they had been frozen at the behest of Washington. Abdolnasser Hemmati also stated that this agreement had been accompanied by “extensive talks on trade relations between Iran and Iraq, implying not only resistance to U.S. sanctions but also growing Iranian influence in a sphere where the U.S. is also present.
This is significant in part because it hints at some of the ways in which Iran’s access to advanced weaponry might be put to use if the US fails to keep the UN embargo in place. One of the Trump administration’s key arguments in favor of an extension was that if Iran’s arsenal grew, some of the weapons would inevitably end up in the hands of regional terrorist groups. That claim is arguably strengthened by the fact that there have been approximately 90 rocket attacks against U.S. assets by Iraqi militant groups, just since January.
Those largely Iran-backed groups recently announced their willingness to adopt a ceasefire, but only on the condition that the United States outlines a timetable for its full withdrawal from Iraq.
Currently, there is approximately 5,200 American personnel in the country, but plans are already in place for this number to go down to 3,000. What’s more, the White House responded to the recent spate of rocket attacks by threatening to close down the US embassy in Baghdad – a move that critics say would effectively cede Iraq to Iranian influence.
On Wednesday, one of the militias’ representatives in the Iraqi government, Ahmed al-Assadi, reiterated their demands and emphasized that any ceasefire arrangement would only be short-term. “In my estimation, at its earliest, it could end around the U.S. elections, or it could last until the end of the year,” he said. “A truce lasting longer than the end of the year doesn’t make much sense. We’re only giving the government more time to negotiate the withdrawal.”
Such commentary seems to imply similar expectations – or at least similar public positions – by the Iranian government and its militant proxies. The seemingly confident insistence upon American withdrawal reflects the same hardline rhetoric as Iran’s Foreign Ministry displayed in predicting that the expiration of the UN arms embargo would mark “the day of U.S. defeat” in the Middle East.