On October 18, 2020, the 13-year long UN arms embargo on Iran was lifted. In Iran, the end of arms restriction was announced through an official statement released by the Foreign Ministry. As such, this embargo on the sale and purchase of conventional arms to and by Iran was due to start expiring progressively from October 18, under the terms of the UN resolution.
The embargo was lifted on Sunday morning, despite US protests, being in line with the five-year timetable set out in the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed in 2015.
In the respective statement, it is said that the definitive and unconditional termination of arms restrictions and travel bans requires no new resolution, state news agency IRNA reported. “In one of the JCPOA’s (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) innovations, the definitive and unconditional termination of arms restrictions and travel bans requires no new resolution, nor does it require any statement or any other measure by the Security Council,” according to the text. “The lifting of arms restrictions and the travel ban were designed to be automatic with no other action required,” it added.
Tehran, which can now purchase weapons, like tanks and fighter jets, from Russia, China and elsewhere, hailed the expiration as a diplomatic victory over the US, which had tried to maintain an indefinite freeze on arms sales.
While Iran says it plans no “buying spree”, it can now in theory purchase weapons to upgrade military armaments dating back to before its 1979 Islamic Revolution and sell its own locally produced gear abroad. In practice, however, Iran’s economy remains crippled by broad-reaching US sanctions, and other nations may avoid arms deals with Tehran for fear of American financial retaliation. The Trump administration has warned that any sales of weapons to Iran or exports from Iran will be penalized.
The Islamic Republic heralded the end of the arms embargo as “a momentous day for the international community … in defiance of the US regime’s effort.” The Trump administration, meanwhile, says the expiration is moot since it reimposed all UN sanctions on Iran, including the arms embargo, via a clause in the nuclear deal Trump withdrew from in 2018, a claim ignored by the rest of the world.
“Today’s normalization of Iran’s defense cooperation with the world is a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter.
His comments were accompanied by the above-mentioned statement of the Foreign Ministry, which added that “as of today, the Islamic Republic of Iran may procure any necessary arms and equipment from any source without any legal restrictions and solely based on its defensive needs.” It also added that Iran could “export defensive armaments based on its own policies.”
Iranian Government spokesman Ali RABIEI has hailed the lifting of the UN arms embargo on Iran as an “achievement,” saying it shows that the country adopted a “correct policy” when it chose to remain a party to the 2015 nuclear deal despite America’s pullout.
Speaking at a media briefing in Tehran on Tuesday, October 20th, Rabiei said that the expiry of the decade-long arms ban was the result of Iran’s righteousness and its people’s resistance. “Despite political opposition and pressure as well as the excessive demands of the US, Israel, and their regional allies, these restrictions have been lifted. This is a sign for both the international community and our dear people,” he added.
Iran’s defense minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami said the country is going to support the countries that seek to defend their existence now that the UNSC’s restrictions on Tehran’s arms trade are lifted. Moreover, in his remarks, General Hatami said the sanctions imposed by the US against Iran pushed the country to move toward self-sufficiency, so much so that the Islamic Republic can now produce and supply 90 percent of its defense needs inside the country. “Even our enemies admit that Iran today is a significant missile power in the world. … It is also a renowned world power in the aerial field,” especially in producing drones and missile defense systems, Hatami said. “Our Khordad-3 defense system managed to target an expensive American stealth drone which had intruded the Iranian airspace,” he noted.
Brigadier General Hatami also stated that Iran will sell arms to the countries despised by the Americans if they ask for it. “Many countries have already talked to us; we have held negotiations with some countries, and the grounds are totally prepared for exchanges [of weapons], both for selling [arms to other countries] and for supplying certain needs [buying weapons],” Hatami said in a televised interview on Sunday night. “Of course, our sales will be much more extensive [than our purchases],” he added. The defense minister said all nations have the right to defend their territorial integrity, and Iran will be a good and successful actor in this regard as it seeks to preserve peace.
Meanwhile, he gave an assurance to regional countries that the Islamic Republic wants peace, stability and security for the region and the world. “This is the clear defense policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. You can’t find any move against this policy in the past four decades … Wherever we took action, it was meant to create peace, help establish security and stability in the region. We honestly showed it to the entire world in the course of fighting against the terrorists trained by the Americans,” Hatami said.
Iran’s Ambassador to the UN Majid Takht-Ravanchi also hailed the UNSC for rejecting all the US efforts to prevent the expiry of the arms embargo. “As of today, Iran’s arms trade needs no prior consent from the UNSC,” he tweeted.
In addition, Iran’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, Kazem Gharibabadi, also told IRNA that governments can no more cite sanctions as a pretext to prevent Iran’s arms trade. “From now on, governments cannot refer to the existence of sanctions or internationally binding restrictions when it comes to arms deals and even in case of weapons of Iranian origin in various countries,” Gharibabadi said.
The US administration has been fervently supported in its efforts by Israel and a number of Arab countries that oppose Iran’s expanding regional influence. In August, the US tabled a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution to indefinitely extend the arms embargo, but it was rejected. From the 14 UNSC member states, the so-called E3 of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, and eight others abstained, while Russia and China opposed the extension. Only the Dominican Republic supported the resolution. After announcing the triggering of a process to “snap back” sanctions on Iran and waiting for a month, in September, the US announced it has unilaterally reinstated all UN sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of Resolution 2231. If implemented, the move would automatically extend the arms embargo as well. But an overwhelming majority of UNSC member states once more rejected the bid, saying no process to reinstate sanctions was started because the move had no legal basis. The US threatened “consequences” for countries that do not adhere to its assertion but has yet to take action. In trying to indefinitely extend the arms embargo on Iran, the US claims the lifting of the embargo will open a floodgate of arms deals that would quickly serve to further destabilize the region.
EU embargoes on conventional arms exports and missile technology are still in place and will remain in force until 2023. As such, the foreign ministers of the E3 in July issued a joint statement that said while the three countries remain committed to fully implementing Resolution 2231, they believe the lifting of the arms embargo “would have major implications for regional security and stability”.
In reaction, on Sunday, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo publicly rejected the end of the ban. “The United States is prepared to use its domestic authorities to sanction any individual or entity that materially contributes to the supply, sale, or transfer of conventional arms to or from Iran, as well as those who provide technical training, financial support and services, and other assistance related to these arms,” he said in a statement. “For the past 10 years, countries have refrained from selling weapons to Iran under various UN measures,” Pompeo said. “Any country that now challenges this prohibition will be very clearly choosing to fuel conflict and tension over promoting peace and security.”
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, responded to Pompeo with a tweet urging the US to help Middle East peace by not provoking Iran. “And please change the words ‘sanctions’ and ‘punishment’ in your vocabulary to ‘dialogue’ and ‘engagement’. That would help a lot! Make the US respected again!”, he added.
On the other hand, China, Iran’s primary trading partner, has long accused the US of exacerbating tensions over Iran’s weapons program by pulling out of the deal. “Iran has resources in China, which it uses to supply its needs and this is different from the money blocked in Japan, Iraq, or South Korea for instance,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said at a regular press briefing on Monday. “We hope the Korean government will fulfill its commitments soon. The progress is insignificant and unacceptable to us,” he said. Iran also has assets blocked in Japan, which Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently discussed in a phone conversation with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi.
“The importance of Iran’s access to its financial resources was underlined in this phone conversation and we hope the Japanese side would carry out its duties based on international rules and regulations,” Khatibzadeh said.
The background and further reactions
The UN Security Council imposed an arms export embargo on Iran in 2007, while in 2010, it banned it from buying major foreign weapon systems in 2010 amid tensions over its nuclear program.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency predicted in 2019 that if the embargo ended, Iran likely would try to purchase Russian Su-30 fighter jets, Yak-130 trainer aircraft, and T-90 tanks. Tehran also may try to buy Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system and its Bastion coastal defense missile system, the DIA said. China also could sell arms to Iran.
Iran has long been outmatched by the US-backed Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have purchased billions of dollars of advanced American weaponry. In response, Tehran turned toward developing locally made ballistic missiles.
Iran blasted Gulf Arab purchases of the US-made defense equipment as “regrettably lucrative weapon deals” with some of those arms used in the ongoing war in Yemen. That conflict pits a Saudi-led coalition backing the country’s internationally recognized government against rebel forces backed by Iran.
The UN arms embargoes, however, did not stop Iran from sending weapons ranging from assault rifles to ballistic missiles to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. While Tehran denies arming the Houthis, Western governments and weapons experts repeatedly have linked Iranian arms to the rebels.
Six Gulf Arab nations that backed the extension of the arms embargoes noted arms shipments to Yemen in their objection to the resumption of any weapon sales to Iran. They also mentioned in a letter to the UNSC that Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane in January and its navy accidentally killed 19 of its own sailors in a missile strike during an exercise. The UN also linked Iran to a 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s main crude oil refinery, though Tehran denied any links, and Yemen’s rebel Houthis claimed responsibility.
Sunday also marked the end of UN travel bans on a number of Iranian military and paramilitary Revolutionary Guard members.
All the restrictions were due to expire on Sunday, in line with conditions agreed to under the 2015 nuclear deal among Iran, Russia, China, Germany, Britain, France, and the United States. The objective was to keep Iran from developing nuclear capabilities in exchange for economic sanctions relief. However, US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the deal in 2018 and has unilaterally begun reimposing sanctions on Iran. But Washington suffered a setback in August when it failed to win support from the United Nations Security Council to indefinitely extend the arms embargo, according to AFP. Washington has said it has decided to unilaterally reinstate virtually all of the UN sanctions on Iran lifted under the accord.
On October 19th, as a reaction to American protests, China’s Foreign Ministry said Pompeo’s remarks were “utterly unjustifiable”. Also, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the US has been selling its arms all over the world, seeking geopolitical interests through arms trade, and interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. Asked if China would now sell arms to Iran, Zhao did not directly address the issue but said Beijing would “handle military trade in accordance with its military export policy and its international obligations”. Moreover, Iran has no frozen assets in China and the two countries maintain logical relations, according to a senior diplomat.
China’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Vienna noted that Beijing stands committed to the JCPOA and will work with all parties to continue maintaining the steady follow-up implementation of the JCPOA and Resolution 2231, in a joint endeavor to push forward the political and diplomatic settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue. To add, the development reflects the common position of the international community to uphold multilateralism and the authority of the UNSC and to safeguard the existing achievements on the Iranian nuclear issue and the effectiveness of the JCPOA.
The aftermath of the lifting of the arms embargo
Back in September, in the context of the US’ protests to the end of the ban, talking about the weaponry, Iran’s foreign minister said the country will meet its strategic needs by purchasing weapons from Russia and China, and has no need for European weapons once the UN embargo is lifted in October. Also, in the same month, Moscow said that it was ready to boost its military cooperation with Tehran, while Beijing has also spoken of its willingness to sell arms to Iran after October 18th.
However, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted a few hours before the Sunday announcement that Iran meets 90 percent of its defense needs, and does not need to be dependent on other countries when it comes to arms supplies. It was also stipulated in the Sunday statement that “unconventional arms, weapons of mass destruction and a buying spree of conventional arms have no place in Iran’s defense doctrine.”
In the wake of the debate regarding the lifting of the arms embargo, on October 20th, the Iranian foreign minister stressed the importance of implementing Tehran’s peace initiative to promote security in the Persian Gulf, dubbed Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE), calling for collective cooperation among neighbors to establish “inclusive dialogue and security networking” in the region. Mohammad Javad Zarif made the remarks in an address to a virtual debate of the United Nations Security Council under the title “Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Comprehensive Review of the Situation in the Persian Gulf”. “Security is contingent on reliance on our own peoples and cooperation with our own neighbors. We need collective efforts by regional countries to establish inclusive dialogue and security networking in this region,” the Iranian foreign minister said. “Otherwise, we will all be engulfed in turmoil for generations to come,” he added, warning that turmoil in the region “will be everyone’s turmoil.” He said the most sophisticated weaponry can be purchased by money but “security and stability can never be bought.” Zarif pointed to the main objectives of HOPE and said it aims to ensure peace, stability, and prosperity in the region, promote mutual understanding and peaceful relations among all the Persian Gulf states, ensure the territorial integrity and inviolability of international boundaries of all Persian Gulf littoral states, cooperate in eradicating terrorism, extremism and sectarian tensions across the region, promote a peaceful resolution of all regional tensions and conflicts through enhanced communication and early warning and ensure the freedom of navigation and energy security for all. The top Iranian diplomat proposed adherence to common principles such as dialogue and mutual respect, equal footing, respect for each other’s sovereignty, rejection of the threat or use of force, non-aggression and non-intervention in the internal affairs of each other, and rejection of participation in alliances and coalitions against one another to achieve such goals.
“We believe that a new regional approach should be the outcome of collective deliberations. Together, we can envisage a broad spectrum of cooperation and confidence-building measures that include water management, environmental protection, nuclear safety, energy security, education, tourism, economic cooperation, trade, investment, poverty eradication, and people empowerment,” he said. He added that all the Persian Gulf littoral states can agree on regional early warning systems and on military contacts and to establish joint task forces regarding practical measures to gradually expand cooperation. Zarif warned that peace and dialogue cannot be achieved if one or two regional countries pursue confrontation and wishfully wait for alien vampires to “cut their neighbor’s head.” He finally told regional states that they can “choose to remain prisoners of the past and perpetuate instability and tension. Or… can choose peace, security, stability, and prosperity for all.”
Talking about the China – Iran deal, Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, specified that the deal has already caused international scrutiny, so China, which wants to demonstrate the image of a “responsible power”, will tread carefully. “More importantly, if [Joe] Biden is elected the new US president – which seems increasingly likely – Beijing would want to reboot the US-China relationship with a new US administration,” he told Al Jazeera. As such, Zhao said it would be unlikely for Beijing to jeopardize the opportunity to mend ties with a Biden administration by making huge arms deals with Tehran.
However, Nicole Grajewski, a research fellow with the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, says there is no indication Russia and Iran have finalized a list of potential arms for negotiations after General Hatami’s visit to Russia back in August. “It is not totally unfounded to suggest that Russia and Iran may wait until the US presidential elections,” she told Al Jazeera. “Both sides have reasons not to antagonize Biden if he is elected: Iran with the JCPOA and Russia with New START.” New START is an arms reduction treaty and the last existing nuclear arms control pact between Russia and the US that expires in February. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday called for a one-year extension of the pact. Moreover, Grajewski pointed out that while the Trump administration has been inconsistent in implementing provisions of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), Russia will take US sanctions into account – especially since Moscow would like to sell weapons to states that could become subject to secondary US sanctions. But she believes financing to be the biggest impediment to a potential major Iran-Russia arms deal. “Russia won’t be as willing as China to sell Iran weapons on barter as it did in the 1990s,” Grajewski said. “Plus, Russia doesn’t want to damage its relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel by providing Iran with high-tech or advanced weapons.” Still, the researcher believes Iran and Russia may enjoy a boost in military cooperation and contacts that have increased in the past few years due to shared interests in Syria and a general improvement in bilateral relations. “There will likely be additional military exchanges and drills in addition to an increase in efforts that promote the interoperability between the Russian and Iranian armed forces at the tactical level,” she said.
Following the implementation of the nuclear deal, Russia completed the delivery of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran, which was successfully tested by Iran in early 2017. This finally concluded an $800m deal signed between the two states in 2007 that was left unfulfilled by Russia after multilateral sanctions pressure on Iran grew.
As Iranian defense expert Hossein Dalirian explains, after years of multilateral and unilateral sanctions, Iran concluded it has to rely on the expertise of its own engineers and experts to boost defense capabilities. “With this perspective, extensive efforts were launched inside Iran to develop a diverse range of advanced arms and systems that are now produced locally, which are on par with those of developed nations, even as attested by military experts of Iran’s enemies,” he told Al Jazeera. Among others, these include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the Bavar-373 surface-to-air missile defense system, which was officially rolled out in August 2019, and which Iran says is on par with the state-of-the-art Russian S-400 system. However, Dalirian said, it has not been possible, or economically feasible, for Iran to produce a number of armaments, including fifth-generation fighter jets. “Even though Iranian experts have recently achieved technological know-how to produce fighter jet parts, and built Kowsar, which is on par with fourth-generation fighter jets, it seems that purchasing fighter jets might be pursued by Iran at the same time as locally developing modern fighter jets,” he said. Dalirian says many countries have shown interest in Iranian armaments, but have been unable to buy them due to sanctions. “Now it remains to be seen what Iran’s enemies, specifically the US, have planned for potential buyers of Iranian arms in political terms,” he said.
With regards to the boost of the Iranian defense system, defense experts predict that instead of buying large numbers of tanks or prohibitively expensive fighter jets, Iran is more likely to purchase small numbers of advanced weapons systems and attempt to transfer the technology domestically.
This article was edited using data from the following websites: www.al-monitor.com, www.aljazeera.com, www.presstv.com, www.theguardian.com, www.dw.com, www.euronews.com, www.defensenews.com, and www.english.aawsat.com.