A diplomatic defeat has arisen for the United States in Washington’s attempt to extend the arms embargo on Tehran. Among the 15 members of the UN Security Council, only the U.S. and the Dominican Republic voted in favor of the U.S. draft resolution to extend the weapons sale embargo on Iran, while Washington’s allies, Paris and London, abstained and Moscow and Beijing vetoed the resolution. Amidst all that is happening in the world right now, the status of Iran’s nuclear program is at the forefront of the global conversation. Since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, the lifting of the arms embargo could have been the most important part for the Iranian regime. Although Iran prides itself on creating a military strategy that has expanded the country’s regional influence without the need for expensive imports and with a relatively small defense budget (in comparison to other Gulf neighbors), sanction relief would allow Iran to modernize its military weapons even further. Now with the possible change of presidency in Tehran and Washington, the future of Iran’s nuclear program is uncertain, but it will inherently have an immense impact on the Gulf region.
U.S.-Iran Tension Builds Up
On July 14, 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached by Iran, the European Union, and P5+1. Iran was prohibited from stockpiling more than 300kg of up to 3.67% enriched uranium hexafluoride, or any other forms of chemical equivalents, until the year 2031. Iran also had restrictions placed on its ballistic missile program and its conventional arms program. Additionally, Iran gave extensive facility access to inspectors in exchange for reduced trade, oil, and economic sanctions. For the first few years following the inception of this agreement, Iran remained within the parameters of the JCPOA, and the agreement was viewed by many as a success. Delegates of the United Nations Security Council called the JCPOA “a significant diplomatic achievement that made the world a safer place.” The Trump administration even certified that Iran was living up to the deal twice, although President Trump has since then repeatedly condemned the deal that was brokered under the Obama administration since it did not address Iran’s missile program and regional destabilizing policies.
In May of 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the deal for its failure to address Iran’s policies in the Middle East and its developing missile capabilities. The U.S. then reimposed sanctions on Tehran that significantly battered its economy. In response, in July 2019, Iran officially exceeded the agreement’s limit on uranium enrichment. Tehran threatened to break more JCPOA commitments if it did not receive sufficient sanction relief, which it did not. To further raise tensions, in January 2020 the U.S. killed Iran’s strongest IRGC leader, General Qasem Soleimani. The targeted general had established Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, which Washington classified as terrorist groups. This prompted Iran to halt its commitments to the deal even further. In retribution for the killing of Soleimani, Iran attacked U.S. troops in Iraq with over 20 ballistic missiles, damaging U.S. facilities at the Al-Asad Air Base and injuring more than 100 U.S. service personnel. In the last several months, Iran has also continued to boost its stockpile of low-enriched uranium.
Weapons in Demand
Iran has recently advanced notably in the sectors of defense and security. One of Iran’s military strengths is its possession of the largest and most locally advanced missile arsenal in the Middle East. It includes thousands of cruise and ballistic missiles that could reach as far as southeast Europe and Israel. Iran also has rocket artillery such as the Zelzal and Fajr-5, the new Khorramshahr ballistic missile that can fly more than 1,200 miles, and long-range Soumar cruise missiles, with a range of about 1,550 miles. Additionally, the Islamic Republic has invested in unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Ra’ad 85.
Despite its weapon sale ban, Tehran is interested in expanding and modernizing its military capabilities, including its drone, cruise, and ballistic missile programs. Iran is interested in purchasing the Russian S-400 System, but Russia is seemingly reluctant to sell such advanced equipment. Additional possible purchases that Iran is interested in include the Chinese fighter-jet JF-17 produced by China and Pakistan and the Russian Su-30SM fighters. The former is more likely because the JF-17 is significantly cheaper than the Sukhoi and much easier to maintain.
Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency has compiled evidence that Iran has been enriching uranium substantially over the past year, and as of May, it had stockpiled over 1,500kg of enriched uranium. On June 19th, 2020, an IAEA Board of Governors meeting took place to adopt a resolution calling on Iran to cooperate with IAEA safeguards. Because of Iran’s rapid uranium enrichment, the time it would take to produce a bomb’s worth of uranium-235 has been significantly decreased. Tehran’s advancements in nuclear weapon technology reinforce its position as a source of nuclear proliferation.
Additionally, Iran already supplies Hezbollah with missiles and rockets, Houthi rebels with ballistic and cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, and the Shiite militia groups in Iraq with rockets and small projectiles. Despite arming its proxies throughout the Middle East with thousands of weapons and its interest in obtaining new weapons, Iran claims that its military power poses no threat to other countries and that its defense policy is only based on deterrence.
U.S. Draft Resolution for Embargo Extension
Despite the Islamic Republic’s claims, the U.S. and its allies are definitely concerned by Iran’s increasing military capacities. On June 29, 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, and former U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, spoke during a joint news conference in Riyadh. The two pushed for an extension of a United Nations arms embargo on Iran that is set to expire in October. They argued that allowing the ban to expire would enable Tehran to arm its proxies and destabilize the region even further.
On August 5th, just one day before he announced his resignation, Brian Hook addressed the U.S. attempt to extend arms embargo during an interview at the Aspen Security Forum. Having been the spearhead of efforts to prevent the embargo lifting, Hook stated, “For as long as Iran is allowed to enrich, we’re going to be having this discussion – how close is Iran to a nuclear breakout?” He urged the international community to pay more attention to what the Saudis, the Emirates, the Yemenis, the Bahrainis, and the Israelis are saying.
After the UN Security Council rejected Washington’s bid to extend the ban, the Trump administration stated that it would invoke a snapback provision of the 2015 nuclear agreement to reimpose UN sanctions on Iran. In a statement following the vote, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft argued that Washington has every right to implement this snapback and stated, “In the coming days, the United States will follow through on that promise to stop at nothing to extend the arms embargo.” President Trump made an official announcement on August 19, 2020 that his administration will restore practically all sanctions on Iran.
Implications for the Future
The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal is facing a slow collapse as key actors fail to uphold their commitments, bringing the deal to a nearly unsalvageable state. The failure of the U.S. bid for an arms embargo extension further raises supporters’ fear that the lifting of the embargo will potentially create a regional arms race in the future. Contrarily, opposers believe that the Trump administration’s snapback provision could put the already fragile nuclear agreement even more at risk because Iran would lose one of its main incentives for limiting nuclear activities.
Chances for nuclear diplomacy with Iran are not feasible before the results of both U.S. and Iranian presidential elections. If Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the election, it is to be expected that he will try to resurrect the JCPOA in some sort of fashion. To further complicate the matter, even if Biden was elected president, Rouhani will leave the government in Tehran shortly after this potentially new U.S. administration would take office. Considering the conflicting interests at play, the nuclear program in Iran is shifting away from the JCPOA initial commitments and towards a more unpredictable, high-risk future.