Ructions over expiring Iran arms embargo
May 15, 2020 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
This Update is devoted to an issue likely to dominate international diplomacy regarding Iran over coming months – the ostensible lifting of the UN arms embargo on Iran this coming October under the terms of the JCPOA nuclear deal signed in 2015. The US is demanding the embargo be extended, given Iran’s rogue behaviour and open violations of the JCPOA, but is being opposed in the UN Security Council by Russia and China, which hope to sell arms to Iran.
We lead with the US Administration’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, explaining the Administration’s policy on this issue in theWall Street Journal. Hook makes a strong case that lifting the arms embargo could allow Iran to greatly expand its threatening and rogue behaviour, including potentially providing advanced weapons to terrorist groups. He also says the US can and will trigger the “snapback” provisions of the JCPOA nuclear deal, which would restore all UN sanctions on Iran including those on arms, if states like Russia and China prevent a resolution extending the arms embargo from going through. For the full explanation of the US policy, CLICK HERE.
Next up are thinktank experts Richard Goldberg and Mark Dubowitz explaining the background to the coming arms embargo diplomatic tussle in some more detail. They explain that the debate about the arms embargo is really about great power competition in the region, with Russia and China determined to see the embargo lifted so that they can use arms sales to turn Iran into a client state. Goldberg and Dubowitz say the key question will be the approach of the Europeans, and whether they can let go of their belief that the rapidly ageing JCPOA nuclear deal must be preserved as a way to engage with Iranian regime moderates. For their complete analysis, CLICK HERE.
Finally, we offer some thoughts on the ongoing US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran and how this policy can ultimately achieve its objectives, from Lt. Gen. (ret.) David A. Deptula, former chief of US Air Force intelligence. He says, two years after the US pulled out of the JCPOA and instituted “maximum pressure”, there are three things the US needs to focus on: increasing Iran’s diplomatic isolation, exposing the regime’s human rights abuses, and establishing strong military deterrence against Iranian attacks. He offers some ideas on how to do each of these things – some of which involve upgraded cooperation with Israel. To read his well-informed suggestions, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- A report on a letter signed by a bipartisan majority of the US Congress supporting the Administration’s demand for an extension of the Iran arms embargo. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has vowed a “crushing response” to any extension of the arms embargo.
- Yonah Jeremy Bob of the Jerusalem Post analyses some recent statements by an Iranian regime-approved academic to try to interpret how the regime is responding to the US pressure.
- Israeli strategic experts Sima Shine and Eldad Shavit offer their assessment of the state of current US-Iran tensions and where they are likely to lead.
- Another analysis of the state of the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” policy after two years, from Mark Dubowitz and Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- The new Israeli unity government’s swearing-in, scheduled for yesterday, has been delayed until next week. AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro explains why and what it is likely to look like when it actually takes office.
- Oved Lobel on Iran’s continuing cyber-mischief during the coronavirus crisis.
- Video of AIJAC’s latest webinar with US scholar and former official Michael Rubin on the topic “Can Iranian and Turkish regional ambitions survive COVID-19?” A summary of his talk is also available on J-wire.
We’re Ready to ‘Snap Back’ Sanctions
If the UN doesn’t renew the arms embargo against Iran, the US will use its authority to do so.
By Brian H. Hook
Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2020 6:57 pm ET
The 13-year-old arms embargo on the Iranian regime will expire in October. The embargo was created by the United Nations Security Council but is scheduled to end because of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, leaving the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism free to import and export combat aircraft, warships, submarines and guided missiles. To prevent this, the Security Council must pass a resolution to extend the arms embargo. If this effort is defeated by a veto, the Trump administration is prepared to exercise all legally available options to extend the embargo.
We face this circumstance because the Obama administration acceded to Iran’s demand that the U.N. embargo end in the fifth year of the deal. It is only one of many restrictions on Iran scheduled to expire over time. President Obama hoped concessions would moderate the regime’s behavior. “Ideally,” he said in 2015, “we would see a situation in which Iran, seeing sanctions reduced, would start . . . re-entering the world community [and] lessening its provocative activities.”
Instead, Iranian provocations accelerated under the nuclear deal. Emboldened by repeated diplomatic wins and flush with cash, the Iranian regime increased its ballistic-missile testing and missile proliferation to terrorist proxies. Iran built out a “Shiite crescent” in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen, arming its proxies to the teeth.
The U.S. and partners have used the arms embargo to disrupt Iran’s sending advanced weaponry to terrorists and militants. This diplomatic tool has rallied the international community to interdict and inspect weapons shipments, building global condemnation of Iranian violations.
Among many examples, on Feb. 9, a U.S. Navy ship interdicted a ship attempting to smuggle Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen. American sailors found 150 antitank guided missiles, three surface-to-air missiles, and component parts for unmanned explosive boats.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani sees a bright future when the embargo lapses. In November 2019, he said: “When the embargo . . . is lifted next year, we can easily buy and sell weapons.” He went on to hail the provision as a “huge political success” for Iran.
The regime plans to upgrade Iran’s aging air force, improve the accuracy of its missiles, and strengthen its ability to strike ships and shoot down aircraft. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—a terrorist group with a long history of targeting and killing Americans—could then reverse-engineer technologies in these systems for domestic weapons production and export.
Iranian weapons already put American and allied troops in the region under threat and endanger Israel. Letting the arms embargo expire would make it considerably easier for Iran to ship weapons to its allies in Syria, Hamas in Gaza, and Shiite militias in Iraq.
Mr. Rouhani understands the stakes. Last week he appeared on Iranian television to declare that “Iran will give a crushing response if the arms embargo on Tehran is extended.” This threat is designed to intimidate nations into accepting Iran’s usual violent behavior for fear of something worse.
The Security Council must reject Mr. Rouhani’s extortion. The U.S. will press ahead with diplomacy and build support to extend the embargo. We have drafted a resolution and hope it will pass. Russia’s and China’s interests would be served by a “yes” vote—they have more to gain from Mideast stability than from selling weapons to Iran for its sectarian wars.
If American diplomacy is frustrated by a veto, however, the U.S. retains the right to renew the arms embargo by other means. Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015) lifted most U.N. sanctions but also created a legal mechanism for exclusive use by certain nations to snap sanctions back. The arms embargo is one of these sanctions.
Former US President Obama himself explained in 2015 that any Iranian violation of the JCPOA would allow the US to trigger snapback of all UN sanctions unilaterally
Mr. Obama explained how “snapback” works in 2015: “If Iran violates the agreement over the next decade, all of the sanctions can snap back into place. We won’t need the support of other members of the U.N. Security Council; America can trigger snapback on our own.” As of today, Iran has violated the nuclear deal at least five times.
The Trump administration’s preferred strategy is for the Security Council to extend the arms embargo while the U.S. continues to apply maximum economic pressure and maintains deterrence against Iranian aggression. Nearly 400 House members, an overwhelming bipartisan majority, have signed a letter backing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s diplomacy to extend the arms embargo. Iran certainly hasn’t earned the right to have it lifted. One way or another, the U.S. will ensure it remains in place against the violent and revolutionary regime in Tehran.
Mr. Hook is U.S. special representative for Iran and senior adviser to the secretary of state.
Extend the Arms Embargo on Iran
Richard Goldberg and Mark Dubowitz
Newsweek, May 7, 2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is leading a campaign to stop the lifting of the UN arms embargo against Iran in October.
In line with a request issued Monday by 387 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is preparing a diplomatic campaign to block one of the most damaging concessions enshrined by the Iran nuclear deal—namely, the lifting of the international arms embargo on Iran this coming October. Mr. Pompeo’s effort merits bipartisan support at home and allied support abroad—not only to counter Iran’s proxy war campaigns, but to stop Russia and China from shifting the balance of power in the Middle East.
The end of the arms embargo is one of the many key international restrictions on Iran scheduled to expire over time—the so-called “sunsets” negotiated alongside the nuclear agreement. Yet it makes little sense to lift an arms embargo on a regime that has steadily increased its violent behavior over the past year, ranging from cruise missile strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure to mine attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and rocket attacks on American and British forces in Iraq. Meanwhile, the regime continues to train and equip proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Gaza, all of which add to instability and civilian suffering.
Accordingly, the first phase of Pompeo’s plan is to propose a new U.N. Security Council resolution to extend the arms embargo on Tehran indefinitely. Russia and China are expected to block the proposal, because the end of the embargo will unshackle their efforts to employ arms sales as a means of turning Iran into a client state.
This acceleration of great power competition is the larger story unfolding here. The Pentagon reports that Beijing and Moscow are planning to sell Iran fighter jets, main battle tanks, attack helicopters and modern naval capabilities. Tehran is likely to proliferate some of this advanced weaponry to the likes of Lebanese Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen.
Iran is already a customer for Russian nuclear power plants and air defense. China has long been the source of Iran’s most proliferation-sensitive materials and is the last paying customer for Iranian crude oil exports. They have been eagerly awaiting the end of the embargo.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with Russian President Vladimir Putin: Large-scale Russian arms sales to Iran are already in the works for when the embargo expires
Phase two of Pompeo’s plan circumvents Russian and Chinese obstruction. He intends to use the self-destruct—or “snapback”—mechanism of the nuclear deal to block the sunset of the arms embargo, removing the need for an extension.
This mechanism gave all original parties to the nuclear deal—including the U.S.—the right to snap all U.N. sanctions and embargoes back into place if the Iranian regime ever breached its nuclear commitments. Such breaches are now indisputable. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in March that Iran has tripled its production of enriched uranium since November and is denying nuclear inspectors access to suspicious sites.
Even though the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal, it retains the right to initiate a snapback. Specifically, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which put the U.N. imprimatur on the nuclear deal, defines the term “participant State” to include the United States. According to a State Department legal opinion, Resolution 2231 does not contemplate a change in that definition even if America ceases participating in the agreement. This was not an accident, but a rare case of foresight on the part of the nuclear deal’s negotiators. Indeed, the Obama administration heavily marketed this unconditional snapback prerogative as a key feature of the deal in 2015.
Unsurprisingly, Russia and China object to this interpretation. They are hoping Europe will persuade Washington to relent. London, Paris and Berlin readily acknowledge the flaws of the nuclear deal, especially its sunsets, but they remain wedded to the belief that engagement on any terms can empower purported moderates and divert Tehran from its decades-long quest for nuclear weapons capabilities.
With the first nuclear deal sunset now on the horizon, European leaders face an important choice. They have an opportunity to show that they understand great power competition is becoming the most important dynamic in the Middle East. By supporting snapback, they can deny strategic victories to Russia and China while blocking the Iranian regime’s access to dangerous weapons.
The Trump administration has made clear that snapback is inevitable. The only question remaining is whether supporters of the Iran nuclear deal in America and Europe can let go of an agreement nearing the end of its shelf-life in support of overriding shared strategic objectives.
Richard Goldberg, who served in the Trump National Security Council, is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Mark Dubowitz is chief executive officer.
Two Years and Counting – Next Moves to Curb Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations
Lt. Gen. (ret.) David Deptula
The American Spectator, May 13, 2020
Former US Air Force Intelligence chief Lt. Gen. (ret.) David Deptula
Last week marked two years since the United States withdrew from the flawed nuclear agreement with Iran and began reimposing sanctions. While powerful, these economic penalties have not compelled a substantive change in the Islamic Republic’s behavior, which continues threatening US forces and interests. Now, as the regime’s legitimacy teeters following a cascade of challenges, the US should heighten pressure by increasing Iran’s diplomatic isolation, further exposing its heinous abuses, and establishing strong military deterrence.
Iran was accused of breaching some of the nuclear deal’s restrictions prior to the Trump administration’s pullout, including limits on its heavy water stockpile and advanced centrifuges. Its violations intensified following the US exit, leading the deal’s European supporters to trigger its dispute resolution mechanism in January and the IAEA to complain of Iranian stonewalling in March. Of course, even with perfect adherence, the nuclear accord fails to permanently cut off Iran’s pathway to a bomb – not least because it allows key restrictions on the regime’s nuclear program to expire.
The deal also seemed to embolden Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, granting it billions of dollars in sanctions relief despite its support of ruthless tyrants and terrorists – from Hezbollah and Hamas, to its proxies in Iraq and the Assad regime. These days, the Iranian regime and its partners continue to engage in destabilizing activities like targeting US and allied troops fighting ISIS, attacking Saudi Arabian oil facilities, and harassing US naval forces and seizing foreign tankers in international waters.
The regime is now at a critical juncture amid an avalanche of crises and self-inflicted wounds. Its legitimacy—already eroded following its ruthless massacre of Iranian protestors, demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, and its shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger jet—has further declined with its opaque, inept response to the coronavirus crisis. Plummeting oil revenues and stalled commercial activity have further battered its bruised economy, and it continues struggling with Gen. Qasem Soleimani’s loss during heightened regional tensions.
Amid it all, the US keeps implementing its “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions, exacerbating a financial crisis caused by the regime’s mismanagement and corruption. Sanctions have led to major cuts in military funding, according to the administration, and cost Iran $200 billion in two years by the regime’s own admission. Iran’s proxies and allies have certainly felt the pinch. Nonetheless, sanctions have not ended the regime’s nuclear or missile programs, its domestic abuses, or its foreign belligerence. While the strike against Soleimani introduced a new layer of deterrence, more action is needed.
The regime is in a uniquely vulnerable position. The US should leverage its diplomatic, information, and military capabilities to strengthen and expand its pressure campaign, substantially increasing the costs for Iranian misbehavior. This includes working—ideally with European partners—to “snapback” United Nations sanctions on the regime for its defiance of nuclear, missile, and arms transfer restrictions, which would also preserve the soon-expiring UN arms embargo. Washington should further encourage its allies and partners, particularly the European Union, to fully ban Hezbollah and clamp down on its operatives and infrastructure.
The US can do more to expose the Iranian regime’s atrocities against its own people, Deptula argues.
The US can also substantially improve its information operations. The regime’s atrocities against the Iranian people are tragically widespread and well-documented—from its ruthless oppression of women, political dissidents, and minorities, to its bloody exploits abroad. The US should dramatically expand its efforts to expose the Islamic Republic and its proxies, especially within Iran and countries in its orbit, while sharing a message of peace with the Iranian people and unmasking the regime’s extensive disinformation campaigns.
To bolster military deterrence, the US should clarify and adhere to redlines against escalations by Iran and its proxies, underscoring that its strike against Soleimani was not an aberration, and that US forces will act in self-defense. President Trump already seems open to such warnings, having recently threatened to destroy Iranian gunboats that harass US naval forces.
The US should also step up maritime interdiction efforts targeting Iranian arms transfers to Yemen, and work with regional allies to target weapons facilities belonging to Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Syria. It could also strengthen the military capability and deterrence of Israel, which is on the frontlines of confronting Iranian aggression. For instance, it could frontload the defense assistance agreed to in the 2016 US-Israel Memorandum of Understanding—a move that would not add any costs for taxpayers, and would support the American defense industry amid an economic downturn. Washington could also replenish and upgrade its prepositioned weapons stockpiles in Israel, and pursue a limited mutual defense pact with Jerusalem.
The US has a broad and powerful set of tools at its disposal. Now, two years following its withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Washington should increasingly deploy them to intensify pressure on the Iranian regime, which is particularly susceptible and struggling with the repercussions of its own disastrous policies.
Lt Gen (ret.) David A. Deptula is former chief of Air Force intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and a senior advisor at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA)’s Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy. He was also a participant on JINSA’s 2013 Generals and Admirals Program to Israel.