Last week marked the fourth anniversary of the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, which means that key restrictions on Iran will soon begin to expire, or “sunset,” despite the U.S. withdrawal from the deal. This coming October, the UN arms embargo on Iran will sunset even though Tehran continues to attack its neighbors while equipping terrorists and insurgents.
Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal became part of a UN Security Council resolution, UNSCR 2231, which also included a five-year international arms embargo. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has stated the regime will take the opportunity to “buy and sell weapons” once the embargo ends.
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency also assesses that Tehran will likely import new conventional weaponry and military equipment from Russia and China. International law will no longer prohibit Iran from exporting such weapons and equipment to foreign countries or to Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.
There is also an impending sunset on UN missile restrictions against Iran, which expire in 2023. At that time, Iran will be free to import missile-related equipment and material, and to buy and sell advanced systems. As its ballistic missile program advances, Tehran could draw on older plans to outfit such missiles with nuclear warheads.
Also in 2023, restrictions on Iran’s advanced centrifuge capabilities will begin to sunset. This would allow Iran to build an industrial-size gas centrifuge program that could lower Iran’s overt nuclear breakout time to a matter of weeks by 2029. In addition, this capability could facilitate a more rapid clandestine “sneakout” option.
Rather than wait for the sunset clauses to take effect, Iran has responded to U.S. sanctions under the “maximum pressure” campaign by suspending its JCPOA commitments in a step-by-step manner. In May 2019, Tehran began violating the deal’s centrifuge, enrichment level, and uranium stockpile restrictions, along with several others, resulting in a net reduction in the amount of time Iran would need to reach a nuclear weapon. Tehran has even hinted it will withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if the JCPOA collapses.
While defenders of the JCPOA hold the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign responsible for Iran’s violations, such actions were already effectively inevitable in the years to come because of the deal’s sunset clauses. It is far better to confront these issues now, while Tehran’s economy is faltering and a domestic uprising is weakening the regime.
The Trump administration has stated it remains open to nuclear negotiations and sanctions relief for Tehran, and the regime may soon face a dire need to accept this invitation or otherwise end the activities Washington finds most objectionable. Iran is already contending with both a deep recession and high inflation, and the International Institute of Finance projects that Iran’s foreign reserves will fall to just $73 billion by March of this year. Moreover, much of Iran’s reserves may not be liquid.
Realistically, however, with little time to negotiate before the U.S. presidential election, the Trump administration’s fallback may be to force the JCPOA’s end, either by working with a European partner or doing so unilaterally at the UN Security Council. This would resolve the problem of sunsets, while snapping back into place much tougher UN sanctions until a more comprehensive and long-lasting solution can be reached.
With the sunset looming for the UN arms embargo on Iran, the United States needs to find other means of deterring and punishing the sale of arms to or from Tehran, such as harsh sanctions on all that engage in such trade. This should be an essential element of maximum pressure.
Andrea Stricker is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Andrea, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Andrea on Twitter @StrickerNonpro. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.