The 13-year arms ban imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Iran came to an end on October 18.
Describing it as a “momentous day,” the Iranian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying: “As of today, all restrictions on the transfer of arms, related activities and financial services to and from the Islamic Republic of Iran…are all automatically terminated.”
In a way, Iran finally succeeded in its “waiting game.” Nevertheless, some EU embargoes on missile technology and conventional arms exports remain in place until 2023 while the final Termination Day will be on October 18, 2025, when all restrictions will be lifted.
Despite tough opposition from the United States, the long-standing conventional arms embargo expired in line with Resolution 2231 of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal signed in 2015. It is a significant development, though the lifting of the embargo may not bring any immediate benefits for Iran, as impediments remain in Tehran’s way.
For starters, even though Washington failed to win support from most of the UNSC members on extending the embargo, it recently stated that there would be severe “consequences” for countries that trade with Iran.
Announcing more sanctions on Iran, Washington has upped the ante and two Chinese businessmen and several Chinese entities have been blacklisted recently for dealing with an Iranian shipping company. As the US had unilaterally declared the re-imposition of all UN sanctions on Iran in September, it has started implementing the restrictions domestically.
The US fears that the lifting of the embargo would aggressively militarize Iran further and destabilize the Middle East.
Apparently, the US fears that the lifting of the embargo would aggressively militarize Iran further and destabilize the Middle East. Once put on the US Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals list, the assets of any individuals and entities trading with Iran and falling under US jurisdiction will be frozen.
Consequently, most Western countries will abstain from selling Iran any weapons, leaving China and Russia as the only other options for Tehran.
However, even Beijing is unlikely to make any large arms deal with Iran in the days ahead due to these sanctions. Even though China and Iran are close to finalizing a comprehensive strategic partnership, any additional domestic restrictions by Washington can become a major obstacle as China has extensive business links within the US.
These days, the Chinese government is waiting for the results of the US presidential elections and is unlikely to take any major step without careful planning.
According to Tong Zhao from the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, a lot depends on the US election results, and “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.”
In addition, China will have to take the sensitivities of its other close partners in the Middle East into account before providing Iran with new weapons. Despite ongoing negotiations of a 25-year partnership deal with Iran, Beijing’s oil imports from Tehran have been greatly reduced.
China will have to take the sensitivities of its other close partners in the Middle East into account before providing Iran with new weapons.
Having declined by 62 percent this year and around one-third last year, it is evident that US sanctions and political instability in the region made China fall back on the UAE and Saudi Arabia for more secure and stable energy supplies.
While its oil imports from Tehran fell, Beijing’s imports from the UAE went up by 11 percent, even during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns. Meanwhile, its imports from Riyadh fell by 28 percent, which is still much less drastic than the scale of reduction with Iran.
Iran’s other option is Russia; and there have been speculations regarding Moscow’s role as a possible arms supplier. The Iranian Defense Minister General Amir Hatami visited Russia where he held talks with senior officials there. But even though a weapons deal would be in Moscow’s interest, various political and financial complications remain.
Tehran lacks sufficient funds due to severe economic sanctions and Moscow may not be willing to give weapons on credit or under any barter arrangement. Financing will prove to be a hurdle, even though there has been an upgrade in bilateral military relations and a long-term partnership is to be renewed.
The US sanctions on Iran have greatly reduced Tehran’s ability to purchase any costly advanced systems as even their maintenance costs are in the billions. In early October, 18 Iranian banks were blacklisted and Iran’s financial sector is almost cut off from the global economy.
Previously, an US$800 million deal between Russia and Iran also faced problems due to multilateral sanctions on Tehran. However, Moscow had completed the delivery of the S-300 air defense military system to Tehran in 2017, one year after the JCPOA was implemented.
Another complication is that Russia has close relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, all of whom are staunch Iran’s adversaries. Commenting on this angle, Kirill Semenov from the Russian International Affairs Council said that Moscow’s ties with Tel Aviv and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) would force it to exercise restraint.
According to Semenov, “Russia will refrain from supplying Iran with offensive weapons such as the Su-30 aircraft and the latest weapons such as the S-400.” Instead, more defensive weapons like the S-300 or the TOR-M1 might be made available for sale.
“Russia will refrain from supplying Iran with offensive weapons such as the Su-30 aircraft and the latest weapons such as the S-400.”
Meanwhile, Russia is also unlikely to commit itself due to the imminent US elections.
Nicole Grajewski, Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, stated that, “It is not unfounded to suggest that Russia and Iran may wait until the US presidential elections. Both sides have reasons not to antagonize Biden if he is elected: Iran with the JCPOA and Russia with New START.”
Expiring in February 2021, New START is the last remaining nuclear arms control pact between Washington and Moscow, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for a one-year extension.
Ultimately, both Beijing and Moscow will have to give priority to their interests in the Gulf. Even if China and Russia do consider limited arms sales to Iran, they would both want to maintain a power balance in the region. On the ground, realities have changed, and while Iran has been under economic sanctions, both countries have become more entrenched in the Middle East.
According to General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of US Central Command, the Middle East has become a “Wild West” arena of competition in which China is extending its economic hold to establish a long-term strategic “beachhead,” while Russia is deploying “pretty high-intensity” military assets to “appear to be a player on the global stage when it comes to Middle Eastern issues.”
A 2019 US Defense Intelligence Agency report stated that Tehran is interested in procuring the S-400 missile defense system as well as Su-30 fighters, T-90 tanks, and Yak-130 trainers. But in a recent statement, President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran would like to sell more arms than it procures.
Tehran could boost its economy with arms sales as its own defense industry has improved and it is estimated to meet 80 percent of its defense needs domestically. In 2017, Iran participated in the IQDEX Defense, Security, and Aviation Exhibition in Baghdad and its stand was the second largest after China, but many countries will still be unable to buy weapons from Iran due to ongoing US sanctions.