- Policy Briefs
Last week, the United States announced a range of new sanctions on Iran’s military-industrial complex, including severe financial penalties against anyone helping Iran import or export conventional weapons. The move follows a failed bid by the United States to extend an arms embargo on Iran at the United Nations. It signals the U.S. determination to block Iranian access to arms without the support of the United Nations, including with a new executive order and other national sanctions authorities. This policy would be more effective if coupled with an emphasis on cooperation with foreign partners and the enforcement of other U.N. resolutions.
U.N. restrictions on Iran’s ability to purchase and transfer arms and related materiel are set to expire on October 18. The promised end of the arms embargo is connected to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and replaced earlier U.N. resolutions sanctioning Iran, calls on U.N. member states to "take the necessary measures to prevent […] the supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related materiel from Iran" and to refrain from selling Iran a variety of conventional weapon systems without U.N. approval—in both cases for five years after October 18, 2015.
Although the United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, U.S. diplomats have attempted to extend the U.N. arms embargo on Iran by invoking the “snapback” provision of the accord. On August 20, the United States notified the U.N. Security Council that Iran had failed to comply with the JCPOA. In theory, such an announcement by a party to the agreement would trigger a 30-day period that could end with the re-imposition of previous U.N. sanctions, if no further action is taken by the Security Council. For their part, the United Nations and the other parties to the JCPOA argue that the United States lacks the standing to employ the snapback mechanism because of the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement. Despite this impasse, the United States promises to use national laws and sanctions to "ensure that Iran does not reap the benefits of U.N.-prohibited activity."
Even if the U.N. arms embargo formally expires next month, Iran is unlikely to expand its military in the near term. This is due to severe financial constraints caused by U.S. sanctions and the deterrent effect that the threat of secondary sanctions may have on Iran's prospective suppliers, including any party financing, transporting, or insuring arms-related shipments to Iran.
Rather, the most pressing threat posed by the end of the arms embargo comes from any increase in Iran's ability to ship weapons to proxies across the Middle East. These militant groups, including the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and militias in Iraq, have engaged in terrorism, facilitated sectarian violence, and worked to overthrow governments recognized by the international community.
U.N. Arms Embargoes
The upcoming expiry of the U.N. arms embargo on Iran notwithstanding, a number of other U.N. resolutions prohibit transfers of weapons to and from countries where Iranian-linked militant groups operate. The United States could invoke the implementation of these resolutions, which are described below, to rally international partners and take joint action against Iran’s military aid to these groups.
U.N. Security Council resolution 2216, enacted in 2015 in response to the civil war in Yemen, imposes an arms embargo on the country’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. A 2020 U.N. report noted that many of the Houthis’ weapons "have technical characteristics similar to arms manufactured in the Islamic Republic of Iran," including anti-tank guided missiles and cruise missiles, and concluded that “the Houthis receive political and military support from the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Commenting on Iran’s patronage of the Houthis, the U.N. report described “indications of potential breaches of the arms embargo.” The United States, in turn, has accused Iran of violating the U.N. arms embargo on Yemen by supplying the Houthis with ballistic missiles and drones. Australia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States have intercepted several shipments of Iranian weapons to the Houthis pursuant to resolution 2216. The U.S. should continue to lead such efforts, emphasizing the enforcement of the Yemen resolution.
U.N. Security Council resolution 1701 requires Lebanon’s government to authorize all arms imports, and U.N. Security Council resolution 1546 urges U.N. member states “to prevent the transit of terrorists to and from Iraq, arms for terrorists, and financing that would support terrorists” and limits the sale or supply of arms to Iraq to only that which is required by the Iraqi government to ensure the country’s stability and sovereignty. Even so, Iran has sent weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to a variety of paramilitary groups in Iraq. A 2018 Reuters article alleged that Iran was equipping Iraqi militants with ballistic missiles. The United States and its partners can use resolutions 1546 and 1701 to take action against such unauthorized Iranian transfers of weapons.
The United States and its allies have moved in this direction in Afghanistan. Since 2011, U.N. Security Council resolution 1988 has imposed an arms embargo on the Taliban. In 2018, the United States coordinated with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to sanction Iranian intelligence officers who had armed the Taliban. This example of cooperation serves as a model for how U.S. officials can rally partner countries to counter Iranian arms transfers that contravene U.N. resolutions.
Iran also appears to be involved in arms-related trade with North Korea despite U.N. Security Council resolution 2270, which prohibits North Korea from importing and exporting weapons. A 2020 U.N. expert panel report referenced allegations from an unnamed U.N. member state that two representatives of the U.N.-sanctioned North Korean company Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), Ha Won Mo and Kim Hak Chol, “were currently in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” KOMID is North Korea's primary exporter of ballistic missile-related equipment and conventional weapons. Investigators from the United Nations have also reportedly linked weapons found by peacekeepers in Somalia to Iran in violation of an arms embargo on Somalia imposed by U.N Security Council resolution 1744.
The United States can also collaborate with countries that share U.S. concerns about Iran’s ability to acquire and proliferate conventional weapons.
The European Union has forbidden E.U. member states from selling arms to the Islamic republic. Whereas the U.N. arms embargo will sunset next month, the E.U. measure will stay in effect until at least October 18, 2023. European countries such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though resistant to the United States’ unilateral efforts at the United Nations, have expressed a shared concern about Iran’s access to conventional weapons and an interest in working with U.S. diplomats to limit such access.
Many of Iran’s neighbors are alarmed at the prospect of Iran expanding its conventional arsenal or boosting its arms exports to proxies in the region. Since 2011, the Arab League has maintained an arms embargo on Syria, a longtime Iranian client state. In addition, the group has often called on the Islamic republic to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Arab League member states, which include Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, and Yemen. According to a press release from the Bahraini Foreign Ministry, representatives from the Arab League met with officials from Bahrain, Egypt, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia in early September to discuss “the crisis with Iran” and “Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose six member states also belong to the Arab League, has likewise expressed support for maintaining an arms embargo on Iran. In August, the GCC released a statement asking the United Nations to extend its arms embargo on Iran until "Iran gives up its destabilizing activities in the region and stops supplying terrorist and sectarian organizations with weapons.”
Alongside multilateral efforts, the United States will continue using its own laws to deter countries and companies from selling weapons to Iran. Executive Order 13949, signed by U.S. President Donald Trump last week, imposes severe financial penalties on entities that engage in "any activity" related to the "supply, sale, or transfer, directly or indirectly, to or from Iran" of "arms and related materiel, including spare parts." The order targets a broad set of actors, including parties that provide arms-related technical training or financial resources for Iran's benefit and entities that facilitate transactions involving items intended for military end-users.
The White House issued this order pursuant to an existing statute, the Countering America's Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). CAATSA enables the President to sanction “any person” who “contributes to the supply, sale, or transfer directly or indirectly to or from Iran [...] of any battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems.”
Pursuant to the new executive order, the State Department imposed sanctions on the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) and the Defense Industries Organization (DIO), a MODAFL subsidiary involved in the development and export of Iranian weapons, as well as DIO director Mehrdada Akhlaghi-Ketabachi. MODAFL and the DIO have long been subject to comprehensive U.S. sanction, including secondary sanctions, so the practical effect of the move will likely be minimal.
A more meaningful signal comes from concurrent State Department sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro “for having engaged, or attempted to engage, in activity that materially contributes to the supply, sale, or transfer directly or indirectly to or from Iran, or for the use in or benefit of Iran, of arms or related materiel.” The United States could target Chinese and Russian arms dealers supplying Iran in a similar fashion.
U.S. sanctions imposed as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran have already had an appreciable effect. Iran has shown interest in the K-300P Bastion-P, a Russian system of missiles for coastal defense, and in Russia's S-400 air defense system. And Iranian officials have announced a planned agreement with China that includes military cooperation. Yet Iran will struggle to afford major weapons systems from either country as long as U.S. sanctions remain in place.
In tandem with sanctions, the United States should emphasize the need to enforce ongoing U.N. arms restrictions on countries where Iran has shipped weapons. This approach will gain more support from the international community than assertions that the U.N arms embargo on Iran has "snapped back." The U.N. Security Council, the U.N. Secretary General, the European Union, and the current parties to the nuclear agreement—including key U.S. allies—have rejected that assertion. All these actors, however, have an obligation to maintain arms embargoes on North Korea, Yemen, and other countries where Iran has long flouted international law.
To construct an effective arms embargo on Iran, the United States should rely on a combination of unilateral sanctions, multilateral measures, and joint action with partners. This combination will counter Iran's efforts to expand its military capabilities and those of its proxies, despite the expiry of arms-related restrictions in U.N. resolution 2231.
Correction: An earlier version of this policy brief mischaracterized the nature of U.N. restrictions on arms exports to Iraq, as well as the content of a U.N. expert panel’s report on North Korea. While U.N. Security Council resolution 1546, adopted in 2004, had reaffirmed a 1991 prohibition on the supply of certain ballistic missiles to Iraq, the U.N. Security Council lifted this restriction in 2010 with resolution 1957. The U.N. expert panel’s report on North Korea referenced allegations from an unnamed member state that KOMID representatives were active in Iran, but the expert panel did not independently corroborate this information.
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 "Executive Order 13949: Blocking Property of Certain Persons with Respect to the Conventional Arms Activities of Iran," The Federal Register, Vol. 85, No. 185, pp. 60043-60046, September 23, 2020, available at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2020-09-23/pdf/FR-2020-09-23.pdf, accessed on September 30, 2020.
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 “Russia Refuses To Sell S-400 Air Defense Missile System To Iran,” Radio Farda, June 1, 2019, available at https://en.radiofarda.com/a/russia-refuses-to-sell-s-400-air-defense-missile-system-to-iran/29975011.html, accessed on September 30, 2020.