In a comment on its website on April 24, the European Foreign Relations Council suggested that France, Germany and Britain should be careful to save the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal like the United States , which left the agreement in April 2018 and imposed overwhelming sanctions on Iran, is trying to extend the arms embargo against Tehran.
As part of the nuclear deal – JCPOA – arms sanctions against Iran end in October.
Below is the text of the commentary entitled “How Europe can avoid a confrontation over the arms embargo imposed on Iran”:
On Saturday April 18, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on Twitter that “the clock is ticking”. He was not referring to the much-needed Covid-19 vaccine, but rather to what, in the world of Pompeo, seems to be the main existential threat to the United States:
Iran. His countdown concerns Iran’s ability to import and export conventional arms, which is currently blocked by a United Nations embargo. But the embargo will expire in October, less than three weeks before the US elections. The United States wants to expand it, and Pompeo has developed a twisted strategy to do so.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom will have to decide to support the American cause or to oppose it. Neither option is ideal; either could have dire consequences for the 2015 nuclear deal. Perhaps it would be best to allow the embargo to expire while simultaneously imposing strict new conditions on conventional arms transfers.
Following the nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran in 2015, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2231. According to the resolution, previous UN restrictions on arms sales classics in Iran would expire after five years – in October 2020. The end of the embargo is one of the few benefits that Iran can invoke as part of the comprehensive plan of action after the Trump administration has left the agreement and re-imposed crippling sanctions in May 2018.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom will together influence the direction of discussions at the United Nations Security Council on the issue. As parties to the nuclear deal, these countries have tried to keep the deal in the hope that Tehran and Washington will find their way back to the negotiating table. If the nuclear deal can be extended until October, the leaders of these three countries will have to think carefully about how they handle the issue of the conventional arms embargo without derailing diplomacy in the nuclear dossier on more strategic.
As part of its ongoing campaign of maximum pressure, the United States will no doubt seek to pressure members of the United Nations Security Council to vote in favor of a resolution to extend the embargo on arms against Iran. This is especially true after Iran’s successful launch of a military satellite this month, which Pompeo says violates resolution 2231. The United States will face a confrontation with Russia and China, which have traditionally protected Iran from such actions at the UN and would be the first countries to benefit from arms exports to Iran. However, Russia and China are not guaranteed a veto, which means that France and the United Kingdom, as veto-holding countries, will have some influence on the end result.
After the relentless struggle to maintain the nuclear deal for almost four years since Donald Trump was elected on the promise to “dismantle the disastrous deal”, it is not in the interests of European security to risk exploding the agreement a few days before the US elections.
But in either case, the nuclear deal could be compromised. With one handy, rallying to the United States to maintain the current arms embargo will be seen by Tehran as the last drop. Iranian officials have been explicit that such a result would most likely lead Iran to withdraw from the nuclear deal and also from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
On the other hand, opposing the United States could have equally serious consequences. The United States is reportedly considering a much-contested measure under resolution 2231 to unilaterally “undo” radical UN sanctions – ironically, using a mechanism under the nuclear deal, although he has already left it. The Trump administration plans to try this legal tactic if its efforts to extend the arms embargo fail. The crackdown on UN sanctions could also force Iran to withdraw from the nuclear deal or the NPT.
It is far from clear how eager China and Russia will be to supply Iran with new weapons
The practical impact of the lifting of the UN conventional arms embargo alone is likely to be minimal. In addition, the EU arms embargo imposed on Iran in 2007 remains in effect until at least October 2023. After Brexit, the UK will most likely introduce its own restrictions.
It is unrealistic to think that Iran will be inundated with new arms purchases since its access to global financial platforms has been cut by unilateral US sanctions. As highlighted by the Covid-19 epidemic, US sanctions have played an important role in blocking Iran’s access and payment channels, even for humanitarian goods that are theoretically exempt. It is therefore unlikely that Iran will be able to purchase a large quantity of weapons from Russia or China in a way that would pose a high risk to Western countries or their partners in the Middle East.
Furthermore, although China and Russia may try to sell poor quality weapons to Iran, it is far from clear how eager they will be to supply it with new systems. Despite its close security partnership with Russia, Iran has encountered obstacles in the transfer of sophisticated weapons. For example, the Russian S-300 missile defense system took nearly a decade to be delivered after the transfer agreement. The S-300 system is not covered by the UN arms embargo, yet Russia has dragged its feet further on delivery. More recently, Moscow is said to have rejected Iran’s request to purchase the improved S-400 missile defense system.
Given these realities, European countries should be far-sighted about the consequences of the expiring United Nations arms embargo. At the same time, they must dissuade the Trump administration from taking measures that could completely destroy the nuclear deal. Instead of getting tangled in legal arguments over the embargo or suspending broad sanctions, France, Germany and the United Kingdom should seek to bridge the gap in the Security Council.
A reasonable option would be to allow the United Nations arms embargo to end as planned in October. Before that, France, Germany and the United Kingdom can formulate a new set of strict conditions, or codes of conduct, to be agreed by the UN Security Council for future arms sales to Iran. . These will be applied in parallel with the existing embargoes linked to the proliferation of weapons in the region. The other parties to the nuclear deal may present the rationale for these measures as being linked to Iran’s non-compliance, making it clear to Tehran that these restrictions will be lifted if it returns in full compliance with the agreement.
US administration hawks are expected to retreat. However, if European countries can involve Russia and China, the United States could follow a more rational path. The Trump administration has been willing to take rare, pragmatic steps against Iran, such as continuing to issue sanctions waivers to allow other countries to cooperate in Iran’s civilian nuclear program without penalty. It is worth testing if the same is possible on this issue, particularly if the Trump administration can be presented with a “victory” that is easier and less costly politically than the risky and confrontational snapback route.
The UK, France and Germany are expected to take preventive action before October to find a solution at the UN level. There is a risk that if the issue becomes contentious in the run-up to the US election, the Trump administration and the Biden campaign will be forced to act belligerently rather than pragmatically on this issue to appeal to voters. By taking steps to resolve the arms embargo dispute against Iran, European countries should protect their strategic interest in containing the Iranian nuclear program while refraining from any action that jeopardizes the prospects for a path diplomatic if necessary between the U.S. and Iran after November, whether under a Trump or Biden presidency.