June 19, 2020 | Newsweek
The U.S. Is Right to Push to Extend the U.N. Arms Embargo on Iran
June 19, 2020 | Newsweek
The U.S. Is Right to Push to Extend the U.N. Arms Embargo on Iran
It’s not every day that Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, borrows from the lexicon of international relations theory. Highlighting the Islamic Republic’s proliferation of conventional arms, Khamenei bragged in a recent address that Iran managed to change “the balance of power” in the Levant against Israel. Rhetorical flourishes aside, the content of Khamenei’s statement is not new. For years, Tehran has spread weapons across the Middle East to further its revisionist vision of an ideal regional order.
But this is only part of a larger problem.
Barreling down on the international community this October is a lapsing U.N. arms embargo on Iran. The ban covers both exports and imports of conventional weapons, as defined in the U.N. Conventional Register of Arms. Subject to a five-year limit, the ban is enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231—which codified the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (known by its acronym, the “JCPOA“). This temporary ban replaced the previous, and incrementally more restrictive, UNSCRs on Iran that contained no expiration dates.
The end of the embargo brings with it a two-fold conventional arms challenge: Iranian military modernization through the legal importation of weapons, as well as Iran’s greater export of weapons that enhance the lethality of its proxies and partners. While Iran has already violated UNSCR 2231’s arms ban through attempts to both procure and proliferate weapons, losing the international architecture with which to call this activity a “violation” and rally the international community to act permits Tehran, to Khamenei’s point, to more easily chip away at the existing balance of power in the Middle East.
On exports, the loss of the embargo would mean the loss of the highest-level blanket international prohibition against Iranian weapons transfers, a move sure to complicate the political predicate for future multi-national efforts to interdict weapons or address threats to international shipping. Moreover, if the ban terminates this October, there will be only country-specific resolutions with general arms bans, such as those pertaining to Lebanon and Yemen—both of which Iran has already violated.
On imports, if the embargo lapses, the most significant multilateral restriction on Iranian military modernization will go with it. For the U.S., which has long sought to impede the Islamic Republic’s military power, the next best policy tools are almost all unilateral. They range from enforcing an existing U.S.-origin embargo on Iran that has been in place since the early 1980s, to threatening various sanctions against foreign sales nodes, to engaging in covert action to thwart purchases, to introducing defective material into Iran’s supply chain.
While the Trump administration has shown how effective U.S. unilateral pressure can be, there is no reason to let the international prohibition lapse. In fact, Iranian leaders like President Rouhani have cited the expiring embargo as one reason to keep the JCPOA (instead choosing to incrementally violate the accord) despite the return of sanctions. Blunter still was the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who threatened that the JCPOA would “die forever” if sanctions against Iranian arms purchases were extended. Underscoring that threat was a semi-official Iranian news outlet, which recently broadcast five retaliatory options Tehran has to turn the screws on Washington if the embargo is extended. For Rouhani, Shamkhani, and others in the Islamic Republic, the JCPOA is more than just a “patient pathway” to a nuclear weapon. It is also a patient pathway to an enhanced Iranian military.
Washington has been ringing the alarm bell on this issue for some time, with the administration (and voices in Congress) openly calling for, at the very least, extending the arms embargo at the U.N. Security Council. Should that fail, they will reportedly press for restoring all U.N. sanctions on Iran, which resets the international baseline for pressure against Iran back to what existed from 2010 to 2015.
This strategy is not lost on America’s adversaries, who are gearing up to oppose any extension of the embargo. At the helm of this effort are Russia and China, two states Iran has already lobbied to oppose the U.S. at the Security Council. Despite its rhetoric about “self-sufficiency,” it is no accident that Moscow and Beijing are the two places where Tehran now seeks help. Both played an outsized role in Iran’s post-Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) re-armament, helping it gain access to a limited quantity of fighter jets, diesel submarines and anti-ship missiles. Both states also signed up during that era to aid Iran’s nuclear program.
According to a 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, Iran is again likely to turn to Russia and China for “advanced conventional capabilities” after the embargo ends. These capabilities could reportedly include advanced fighter aircraft, tanks, coastal defenses and air-defense systems. What the report overlooks, however, are the potential cruise missiles Tehran may seek to procure from Russia and China. Another land-attack cruise missile would significantly enhance Iran’s long-range strike capabilities. It would also help the regime achieve parity between its cruise and ballistic missile arsenal. Iran is believed to have proliferated cruise missiles in the past, and currently seeks to grow the lethality of these weapons. Last September, cruise missiles featured prominently in Iran’s attack against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
While Russia and China are not predisposed to provide Tehran with every capability it desires, empowering Iran would create more headaches for Washington and yield less time and resources for the Russian and Chinese problem sets. In 2017, the U.S. National Security Strategy warned that the era of “great power competition” was back, with Russia and China more inclined to challenge Washington’s “geopolitical advantages” around the world. Iran is now set to be one theater for this contestation.
Although Iran is classified as a “rogue” power in that same strategy document, there are growing linkages between it and Russia and China. Since the advent of the JCPOA, Iran has purposely drawn itself closer to both powers. If the arms embargo lapses in October, Washington could witness in real time the merging of the great and regional power challenge.
But not everyone believes enhanced Iranian conventional capabilities are a bad thing.
In fact, some scholars have implicitly embraced the idea. This school of thought hopes that a more conventionally capable Islamic Republic could mean a more secure Islamic Republic, which over time might dampen the regime’s desire for unconventional warfighting tools like terror proxies or even nuclear weapons. Other analysts have sought to temper concerns over a deluge of foreign weaponry arriving in Iran by citing the legacy of past procurement hurdles (such as over the S-300 system), as well as by raising the question of financing.
It is no secret Iranian military planners are conscious of their conventional shortcomings, but focusing only on the above driver downplays other, more path-dependent components of Iranian security policy. This includes the legacy of conflicts like the Iran-Iraq War, which taught Tehran the value of deterrence—as well as the legacy of Iran’s asymmetric interventions and proxy wars, which taught Tehran how to bleed its adversaries in a plausibly deniable fashion.
Both legacies mean that Iran would be less likely to divest from its quest for the ultimate deterrent (a nuclear weapon) or cheap and relatively successful war-fighting tools—like using proxies—when presented with the option to grow its conventional military. If anything, the regime would work to retain its asymmetric capabilities and layer on greater conventional capabilities when they become available, pocketing the arms embargo’s termination as a concession from an irresolute West.
Worse, the newfound capability could spur an escalation in Iranian low-intensity warfare in the region. With the regime feeling more secure—and thus more confident in its deterrence and ability to protect the homeland using conventional weapons—it will turn its sights abroad.
None of this is to mean that Tehran will immediately become a conventional military power in October 2020. However, as new hardware is procured, reverse engineered, incorporated into existing doctrine, rendered interoperable (if possible) and perhaps even proliferated, the net effect will be a more hybridized and lethal war-fighting capability. When placed in the hands of Iran’s revolutionary and Islamist leadership, such capability is not inclined to promote responsibility and restraint.
It is this outcome that an extended arms embargo seeks to avoid. Washington has no philosophical gripe with Iranian military power, or the idea of Iran having a defense policy. However, it does take issue with how such power is wielded. Therefore, Washington opposes the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and already the largest missile power in the Middle East, attaining a significant conventional military capability.
“Normal” nations do not face such embargoes or impediments. Revolutionary regimes ought to. Tehran should be permitted to access international arms markets if and only if it acts like a normal nation. Otherwise, Washington should press ahead with its plans to extend the embargo.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Iranian political and security issues.