Bottom Line up Front
- The October 2020 expiration of the U.N. ban on arms transfers to and from Iran would have little material impact on the strategic threat posed by Iran.
- Iran’s economic difficulties hamper its ability to buy major new combat systems.
- Conventional weapons are marginal to Tehran’s regional strategy that depends on arming and advising a robust network of regional allies, proxy militias, and other violent non-state armed groups.
- The Trump administration’s efforts to extend the arms transfer ban are encountering significant resistance from Russia, China, and the European countries.
The Trump administration is accelerating its efforts to compel other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – all of which are parties to the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal – to extend the U.N. ban on arms transfers to and from Iran. Under Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the nuclear deal, the ban expires on October 18, 2020 – an expiration intended to give Iran incentive to comply with the accord. The Trump administration exited the nuclear deal in May 2018 in favor of a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign engineered to bring Iran’s economy toward collapse and deprive Iran of the ability to threaten the region. The Trump administration asserts that it retains the right to snap back all U.N. sanctions on Iran – and thus essentially terminate the nuclear agreement entirely – if the Security Council refuses to extend the arms transfer ban. To date, the United States has encountered strong opposition from Russia and China to extend the ban, and resistance from those countries as well as France and Britain, and Germany (another party to the nuclear deal) to any U.S. attempt to trigger the broader sanctions snap-back.
To gain support for its position, in late June the United States began circulating a draft Security Council resolution to extend the embargo for only one year – dropping its original plan to demand an indefinite extension. The draft provides for interception of Iranian arms shipments to its proxies, including searches of Iranian vessels on the high seas. As part of the Trump administration’s campaign, on June 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a graphic illustrating that Iran would be able to attack into Western Europe if Tehran was able to buy the Su-30 (Russian Sukhoi) and J-10 (China) combat aircraft that Iranian leadership purportedly covets. A Congressionally-mandated Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) annual report on the military power of Iran, released in November 2019, had said that Iran is discussing with Russia the purchase not only of the Su-30 but also ‘T-90 MBTs (main battle tanks), the S-400 air defense systems, and Bastian coastal defense systems.’ The U.S. draft nonetheless has failed to garner significant Security Council backing and the main sellers of new weaponry to Iran—Russia and China—threaten to veto the draft.
Despite the Trump administration claims that the arms transfer ban’s expiration would threaten global security, the material significance of the expiration of the U.N. arms ban would be marginal. In all likelihood, Iran lacks the hard currency resources to complete significant new arms purchases for at least the next several years. Iran’s oil revenues have fallen at least 90% from 2017 levels because of U.S. oil sanctions and the decline in oil prices caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Iran’s hard currency assets held abroad, which could total as much as $80 billion, are restricted by U.S. sanctions to funding food and medicine from the countries where the funds are located, and cannot be withdrawn to pay Russia or China for new arms.
Even if Iran was determined to modernize its conventional arsenal, doing so would add little to the Iranian strategic threat. Iran’s armed forces, both regular and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), are not sufficiently proficient to use such weaponry effectively against the United States or its allies. Iran’s geostrategic strength flows from its support for a wide network of armed factions that operate not only in their countries of origin but further afield, including as a terrorist network in Europe, Africa, and Latin America. The nature of this threat was highlighted by the latest annual State Department report on global terrorism, released in late June 2020 (covering 2019). The U.N. arms transfer ban, which also prohibits Iran from exporting arms, has failed entirely to prevent Iran from supplying its allies and proxies. In 2019 and thus far in 2020, Iran has demonstrated the ability to project power with increasingly accurate cruise and ballistic missiles, but it has not used conventional arms such as combat aircraft. The marginal benefit of extending the arms ban, coupled with the Russian, Chinese, and European commitment to the Iran nuclear deal, explains why the Trump administration effort to extend the ban has encountered stiff resistance at every turn.