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Alireza Noori

assistant professor of regional studies at Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran

Lifting or extending the UN arms embargo on Iran, which according to SC Resolution 2231 is supposed to be ended in October 2020, has led to a new confrontation between Tehran and Washington. The US has circulated a draft UN resolution that would extend the embargo, and Secretary Pompeo vowed to use all means available to do so.

According to Washington, lifting the embargo will lead to arms competition and instability in the Middle East. Denying this charge, Iran, under Resolution 2231, considers it its right to lift the embargo and blames the US to be the leading cause of instability in the region.

Iran is also aware that Trump's main goal is to force it to withdraw from JCPOA (in reaction to a possible extension of arms embargo), in order to put various powers, like Russia and China, on its side against Iran. With this in mind, Iran is unlikely to engage in radical behavior, even if the embargo is extended.

While financing new arms purchases in the face of declining oil revenues due to sanctions and the global coronavirus clampdown seems difficult, Iran's experience in circumventing sanctions and advancing its military plans under pressure shows that it can fix the problem.


Lifting or extending the UN arms embargo on Iran, which according to SC Resolution 2231 is supposed to be ended in October 2020, has led to a new confrontation between Tehran and Washington. The US has circulated a draft UN resolution that would extend the embargo, and Secretary Pompeo vowed to use all means available to do so. In case of failure, Washington has threatened to trigger the so-called "snapback" mechanism deal to return all UN sanctions on Iran. At the same time, most of the US House urges more diplomacy to renew the Iran arms embargo.

According to Washington, lifting the embargo will lead to arms competition and instability in the Middle East. Denying this charge, Iran, under Resolution 2231, considers it its right to lift the embargo and blames the US as the leading cause of instability in the region. Iran's FM, Mohammad Javad Zarif, emphasizes that "the US has long been the world's top military spender, arms seller, war initiator and instigator, as well as conflict profiteer. Yet Secretary Pompeo is apparently so worried about Iran that it's stationing weapons all over the globe."

In this regard, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned of Iran's "crushing response". Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Ali Shamkhani, warned that the nuclear deal would "die forever" should the arms embargo be further extended. The chairman of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Mojtaba Zolnoori, declared that such a situation could lead to a series of consequences, including the collapse of the JCPOA, stopping the implementation of the Additional Protocol, or even the withdrawal from NPT.

Iranian authorities' harsh response shows that Iran's goals and the decision to lift the country's arms embargo go beyond the scope of buying or selling weapons. The first goal is political, namely, to thwart the Trump's "maximum pressure" strategy. Iran's containment and an embargo extension are also to be considered as part of the US strategy. In this regard, the US's success in extending the embargo would also mean the success of that strategy, while its failure would demonstrate the weakening of the latter. Accordingly, Iran is to use the opportunity to strengthen its political position and weaken the "maximum pressure" strategy by delegitimating US efforts to extend the embargo.

The second goal is economical and relates to breaking the sanctions' structure. If the arms embargo is not extended, there will be a rift in the sanctions' structure. Consequently, Iran will enter a new era of reducing restrictions and will possibly be able to reap more benefits from JCPOA. In this case, lifting restrictions in the next stages in 2023, 2025, and 2030 will be done more efficiently. Buying and selling weapons will facilitate trade in other areas too.

The third goal is linked to the military, which is to strengthen balance and deterrence by providing advanced weapons and developing military cooperation. Although Iran has improved its military capabilities in recent years, especially in the field of missiles and drones, there is still an urgent need for development.

The fourth goal aims to develop, through arms interactions, military-political cooperation with countries such as Russia, China, as well as others in the region. Iran, Russia, and China held joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman late last year. Furthermore, Iran-Russia military cooperation in Syria and Iran's security-military cooperation with Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are additional examples of military cooperation, which can be improved through arms interactions.

The fifth goal is to develop Iran's regional influence through the support of its proxies, relying on advanced weapons bought, and selling its own weapons. In general, improving Iran's military capabilities and deterrence by new weapons and military technologies will be effective in strengthening its regional position and its proxies and allies' position in the region.

Naturally, Iran needs international political and arms support to achieve these goals and thwart US efforts to extend the arms embargo. Russia and China are two powers that Iran is counting on, and it will not be easy for the US to take on these two countries together with Iran. Meanwhile, for various reasons, Russia can be more helpful for Iran than any other country.

Firstly, politically, Russia, and Russian officials, from FM Lavrov to Russia's deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov and Russian Foreign Ministry's Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control Director Vladimir Ermakov, have repeatedly opposed US pressure on Iran and its plan to extend arms embargo. The opposition also echoed in the Russian Foreign Ministry statement on March 3, stressing that there is no reason to raise the issue of extending Iran's arms embargo to the Security Council.

Secondly, Iran and Russia have a history of arms-military cooperation. Iran has previously received various Russian weapons, such as S-300 systems, and the two countries have also worked closely in Syria. They have different security and military agreements, including countering terrorism and regional cooperation and have held joint drills in the Caspian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. This collaboration shows their willingness to develop relations.

Thirdly, Iran and Russia's geopolitical views on regional stability and security, as well as the need to strengthen balance and deterrence against the US, are consistent. As an anti-US force in the region and on Russia's southern borders, Iran serves Moscow's interests. Therefore, helping Iran, through supplying weapons to stand up to the US, is, in fact, an aid to Russia's interests.

Finally, Iran has repeatedly stated its interest in acquiring Russian weapons, and Russia wants to take advantage of Iran's need for military modernization. Buying weapons will increase Iran's dependence on Russia while, at the same time, economically benefit Russia greatly. Additionally, Russia, the world's second-largest arms exporter, could use the opportunity to improve its position in the world arms market by taking advantage of Iran's significant arms needs.

On the other hand, although China has provided assistance to Iran several times in relation to sanctions pressure, the country has, at the same time, shown its reluctancy to take risks. For example, China has recently reduced trade and oil purchases from Iran following US pressure. It is thus likely, for Beijing, to repeat this behavior, especially when it comes to sensitive areas, such that of selling military equipment to Iran. Accordingly, although China is more inclined to oppose the US politically, it is still quite unlikely for the country to enter major arms trade with Iran. Conversely, though, Iran's vast arms market could be tempting for Beijing, improving its position among the world's arms exporters.

Iran has little hope that European powers will prove themselves to be helpful. On the one hand, EU members are concerned about Iran's regional activities and Iran's nuclear and missile programs, and on the other, Brussels appears to be dissatisfied with Trump's unilateral policies. Iran's previous experience in negotiations with European powers to save JCPOA, lift sanctions, and the INSTEX suggests for them to be on the US's side eventually. The only thing that can bring Europe closer to Iran is the fear of JCPOA's death, but it seems that even this critical issue will not change Europe's behavior. Thus the answer to Shamkhani's question about whether or not Europe should "save dignity and support multilateralism or accept humiliation and help unilateralism?" is clear to Iran.

Regarding arms purchases, if the embargo is lifted, it should be noted that although Russia is Iran's primary option, it will try to meet its arms needs from various countries, like China, to prevent becoming too heavily dependent on Russia. Iran's primary need is to strengthen its air force, air defense systems, naval defense, and radar and electronic warfare systems. Due to the concern of countries/companies exporting weapons about sanctions and the secrecy of arms trades, accurate information about Iran's requested weapons is not available.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that Iran is seeking to purchase Sukhoi fighters (35, 30SM and 27SM-3 models), MiG fighters, air defense systems such as S-400, Bastion Coastal Defense Missile System and the T-90 tank from Russia. Iran has also reportedly held talks with China to buy the G-10C fighter, the FD-2000 air defense missile systems, the LY-80 systems, and the automatic air defense system.

According to Iran, Russia and China will be cautious about arms sales, as well as quite reluctant to confront the US. Moscow and Beijing know that the US is sensitive to this issue, and even if the arms embargo is lifted, the US will apply unilateral sanctions. Violating these sanctions, thus, would be highly costly for Russia and China. Therefore, they will not jeopardize their interests by engaging with Iran and confronting the US. Simultaneously, some interests, including strengthening of balance, increasing chips' bargaining against the US, and taking advantage of Iran's arms market, are likely to keep their motivation alive to sell arms to Tehran. One thing they can do is sign arms deals with Iran but postpone their delivery.

In addition to the US variable, other variables, including Iran's regional competitors' reaction, are essential for Moscow and Beijing. They have political, economic, and military ties with Arab countries as well as with Israel. The large sale of weapons to Iran could jeopardize their relations. On the other hand, the regional balance of power in the Middle East is essential for Russia and China, and they do not want to upset the existing balance by providing advanced weapons to Iran. These considerations make them more cautious.

Iran appears to be considering buying weapons from other countries, such as Pakistan or North Korea. It should be noted that this strategy has little to do with lifting or extending the embargo because, in any case, buying must be carried out without US knowledge.

It should also be noted that Iran will be particularly cautious about buying weapons, hence why the assumption that the country will make extensive purchases if the embargo is lifted doesn't appear to be correct. Iran views the lifting of the embargo as a turning point in easing sanctions and delegitimating US policy. The reason lies in the fact that Iran is committed to making it clear to the international community that its goal only relates to the strengthening of balance and deterrence, and that the US' view of Iranophobia is a lie. Iran is, at the same time, aware that radical behavior can put the international community against it.

Iran is also aware that Trump's main goal is to force it to withdraw from JCPOA (in reaction to a possible extension of arms embargo), in order to put various powers, like Russia and China, on its side, against Iran. With this in mind, Iran is unlikely to engage in radical behavior, even if the embargo is extended.

While financing new arms purchases in the face of declining oil revenues due to sanctions and the global coronavirus clampdown seems difficult, Iran's experience in circumventing sanctions and advancing its military plans under pressure shows that it can fix the problem.

In recent years, improving Iran's military capabilities under sanctions in missiles and drones fields and electronic warfare, which were reflected in Iran's attack on Ain al-Assad base, the downing of US drones and military action in Syria show that this process will continue, whether the embargo is lifted or not.


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