United States Foreign Policy and the ending of The United Nations Iranian Arms Embargo

13th November 2020

With the lifting of UN sanctions in October 2020, a decision much maligned by the United States, it is interesting to see the effects this would have on the world and whether Iran would suddenly go on a conventional arms shopping spree as some have predicted. This article will briefly look into the background of the Iranian nuclear deal and the United States response to the ending of the sanctions, before looking at how the ending of these sanctions would realistically translate into the real world.

On 18th October 2020 the UN ended a ten year long arms embargo which penalised Iran for its nuclear adventurism by preventing them from purchasing conventional foreign weapons. A key vehicle for the creation and ending of these sanctions was the unanimously passed United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 in July 2015 which created the seven-party ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ (JCPOA) involving Iran, the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.1 The resolution was designed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to build confidence in ‘the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme’ whilst also ‘promoting and facilitating the development of normal economic and trade contacts and cooperation with Iran’.2  In May 2018 the United States President, Donald Trump, announced that the US would leave the deal he had long disparaged, calling it ‘a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made’.3

Embedded in the JCPOA was what was referred to as the ‘snapback mechanism’ which allowed participants of the nuclear deal to ‘re-impose UN sanctions in a manner which cannot be vetoed’.4 The initiation of this mechanism was attempted by the United States on the 20th August who took umbrage to the planned relaxing of the Iranian sanctions as part of the JCPOA, having previously gone to the 15-member Security Council on 14th August to demand an indefinite extension of the arms embargo; a demand which suffered an embarrassing defeat, seeing only the Dominican Republic support the proposal.5 Upon invoking the snapback mechanism, the US was informed by Secretary General Guterres that they were not in a position to do so, having left the agreement in 2018.  In response to this, the USA announced in September that it would be unilaterally re-imposing the UN sanctions on Iran, a decision which was called ‘legally void’ by Josep Borrell, the EU’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, due to the United States no longer being a participant in the agreement.6 This unilateral approach has also been criticised by Crisis Group who have referred to coercion as being ‘the leitmotif of the Trump administration’s Iran policy’ intended on destabilising the country.7 In addition to unilaterally re-imposing the UN sanctions, the United States have also imposed sanctions on the Iranian financial sector, as well as the Ministry of Petroleum, the National Iranian Oil Company and the National Iranian Tanker company, leading to Iran calling on them to ‘kick the habit’ of sanctioning.8  As an attempt to further cement the foreign policy of the Trump administration in the aftermath of President-elect Joe Biden’s projected win, an additional round of sanctions on six new firms and four new people operating in Iran was announced on 10th November.

The ending of the arms embargo by the UN in spite of the USA’s protestations was congratulated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and was referred to as a ‘a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region’ by the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.9 Despite fears of an Iranian shopping arms shopping spree at the termination of the embargo, the Foreign Minister also made a statement declaring that ‘unconventional arms, weapons of mass destruction and a buying spree of conventional arms have no place in Iran’s defence doctrine’ and that the country would focus on a ‘strong reliance on its people and indigenous capabilities’.10 This statement is very much in line with Rouhani’s prediction that Iran is expected to export more arms than it imports, something seen by many as necessary in order to supplement Iran’s non-oil exports.11 Whilst a buying spree appears not to be on the cards, much of Iran’s military is in need of upgrading. In regards to this, the International Institute for Strategic Studies have pointed to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s asymmetric warfare capabilities, as well as the country’s ballistic-missile programme and anti-access/area-denial systems as the most likely areas where purchases will be made, having seen constant investment since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.12 In addition to this, Iran are also expected to approach China and Russia in order to upgrade areas where ‘indigenous capabilities’ cannot be relied upon. A 2019 United States Defence Intelligence Agency report further specified areas in which these upgrades would take place and pointed to the Russian made ‘Su-30 fighters, Yak-130 trainers, T-90 tanks, Bastion mobile coastal defence missile systems, and the S-400 surface-to-air missile defence systems’.13 However, it is questioned whether these countries would put in jeopardy the lucrative contracts they have with other countries in the region, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whilst further questions have been raised over Russia’s willingness to share sensitive military technology.14

Questions around Iran’s feared imminent shopping spree also do not take into account the fact that the country’s economy, already crippled by sanctions, is also dealing with a debilitating COVID-19 pandemic. Further to this, the USA operating unilaterally are still able to exert a huge amount of pressure and influence on others, having issued an executive order on 21st September which warned of financial retaliation to anyone who conducted conventional arms trades with Iran, likely to put off China and Russia already engaged in delicate geopolitical considerations in the region.15 This is not to mention that an EU enforced embargo on conventional weapons and missile technology remains in place until 2023, further diluting the pool from which Iran would be able to procure armaments.16 It should be noted, however, that the United States coercive attitude and tendency to enforce sanctions on all aspects of Iranian society has the potential to further increase Iran’s co-operation with hostile or rogue states if not offered a legitimate means of procuring technology. Whilst not a rogue state, although arguably hostile to US interests, an example of this has been the entry, and continued monopolisation, of Huawei in Iran’s telecommunications sector. Originally working in co-operation with the Swedish company Ericsson to conduct 5G trials in the country, Irancell, the country’s second biggest mobile operator, turned to Huawei after Ericsson was forced to terminate the partnership they had made in 2017 after President Trump warned European companies against co-operation with Iran upon the United States exit from the JCPOA, leaving the door open for Huawei to step in and increase Chinese influence in the region.17

There is optimism that Joe Biden’s projected victory in the 2020 US Presidential election will kick-start the JCPOA as the President-elect has been vocal about the efficacy of the deal and appears to be keen to re-join the group. President Rouhani is seemingly also keen for a reinvigorated JCPOA and has called upon the US to ‘restart fulfilling commitments under the Iran nuclear deal’. The re-joining of the agreement by President-elect Biden would highlight his aims to move American foreign policy away from the Trump Administration’s mantra of ‘America First’ towards framing America as ‘a partner whose word can be relied on’.18

The creation of the JCPOA, and the associated sanctions, are indeed necessary for stability in the region and to keep Iran’s perceived nuclear adventurism in check, with the International Atomic Energy Agency having found Iran to repeatedly skirt stockpile limits.19 However, it could also be argued that the United States’ threats and unilateral sanctions are having a greater impact on destabilising the region, pushing Iran towards less savoury allies and creating an atmosphere in which the country feels it needs to defend itself, especially when such sanctions are not limited to the military establishment but also regular Iranian citizens. The ‘legally void’ sanctions imposed by the USA also seem to lack the legitimacy, which was attached to those imposed by the UN, reinforcing Iran’s negative perceptions of USA administrations. The unilateral actions of the USA should be ceased in order to foster mutually greater ties and trust between Iran and the international community, with any further action having international backing, legitimacy and legal basis, as the JCPOA had.