June 17, 2019 | Policy Brief

Confronting Iran’s Illicit Arms Trafficking

June 17, 2019 | Policy Brief

Confronting Iran’s Illicit Arms Trafficking

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions last week on an Iraqi front company operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) that “trafficked hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to IRGC-QF-backed Iraqi militias.” Despite Iran’s violations of the current UN arms embargo, the embargo is set to expire in October 2020, freeing Iran to purchase advanced conventional weapons while arming its proxies across the region.

In addition to codifying the nuclear deal with Iran, UN Security Council Resolution 2231 of July 2015 contained modified import and export restrictions for a five-year duration on conventional weapons. The five-year “sunsets” on these restrictions represent a hard-fought victory for Iranian negotiators. Prior to the Obama administration’s concessions on this point, General Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified, “Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.”

With nearly four of the embargo’s five years already gone, Washington faces a rapidly closing window to extend or eliminate these sunsets. While the embargo has impeded military modernization, Tehran continues to commit violations.

On the export side, Tehran has proliferated anti-tank missiles, drones, and ballistic and cruise missiles to its partners and proxies. Just last week, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen reportedly fired a cruise missile at a Saudi civilian airport, injuring 26. If confirmed, this would be the Houthis’ second cruise missile attack. The first launch, targeting the UAE in December 2017, employed a missile provided by Iran. It is likely the second one did, too.

Iran has also violated, on multiple occasions, the arms import provision of the UN embargo through illicit procurement. Tehran remains committed to obtaining missiles and related technology, indicating a reliance on select foreign systems and components. The expiration of the embargo could give it access to advanced Chinese and Russian technology.

Missiles are a top priority for Iran and, as the post Iran-Iraq War era shows, Iran is capable of embarking on selective modernization campaigns to achieve key goals. After the 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq, Iran sought anti-ship missiles from China and submarines and jets from Russia, all designed to deter and contest the U.S. Now, Iran would likely look to those same countries to augment its growing cruise missile capabilities. For example, the acquisition of systems such as the Russian Club-K or the Chinese YJ-18C, both of which can allegedly be launched from containers at sea, could be a game-changer for Iran.

The administration has drawn attention to the embargo issue multiple times, but has thus far been unsuccessful at generating sufficient international consensus. Washington has also declassified and presented to the public evidence of Iranian military proliferation, such as weapons hosted at the Iranian material display.

For all these reasons, the international community should make permanent, or at the very least, extend, the existing UN arms embargo on Iran before it lapses next October. It should also seek consensus over how best to punish past and present transgressions. Despite disagreements regarding the nuclear deal itself, the UN Security Council should not reward Iran for its destabilizing behavior and disregard of a Security Council resolution.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to its Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


International Organizations Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Missiles Iran Nuclear Iran Politics and Economy Iran Sanctions Iran-backed Terrorism Military and Political Power Sanctions and Illicit Finance