A Fading Arms Embargo Reveals The Folly Of Trump's Iran Strategy

A Fading Arms Embargo Reveals The Folly Of Trump's Iran Strategy

The United States currently has no viable path to reimposing the arms embargo on Iran.

Iran is also hoping that its stronger ties with China and Russia and the deeper enmity between those countries and the United States—especially in the case of China—will stop them from voting against Iran in the Security Council. U.S. policy on China has gone from “managing China’s rise” to stopping China rise and overthrowing the Communist Party, so Beijing is now less likely to see making Iran-related concessions to Washington as a viable means of avoiding a confrontational relationship. America’s “Magnitsky” sanctions against Russia and its hostility with the Iran-Russia alliance in Syria, also makes Russia less cooperative with the United States.

Iran’s Arms Strategy and Defense Acquisition Doctrine

Secretary Pompeo claims that Iran would become a major importer of arms if the embargo is lifted. But this is incredibly unlikely. Evidence of this is that Iran is not ordering big ticket foreign weapons systems now. One common myth is that the UN arms embargo bans all arms sales to Iran. In reality, it bans all arms sales from Iran and but only bans the sale of specific arms to Iran that are included in the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA), as well as associated parts and material. Included in the UNROCA Registry are tanks, APCs, small arms, fighter jets and attack helicopters, missiles and virtually all fighting naval vessels. 

Notably absent from the list are defensive weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles, coastal defense systems, cargo planes, and naval support vessels. The fact that Iran has purchased few of these weapons shows that Tehran is unlikely to go on an arms purchasing spree after the embargo is lifted. It is possible Iran may make future acquisitions of these weapons, but those Iran does buy are unlikely to alter the balance of conventional forces. Iran may even look to making purchases from Russia and China as a vehicle for reinforcing their military relationship. 

After all, the arms embargo, especially as it is a UN mandate and a commentary on Iran’s foreign policy, resonates as a symbol of Iran’s isolation for both Tehran and Washington. There are two reasons why Iran does not purchase as many arms as it can. As is the case with Iranian military doctrine generally, they both relate to the experiences of the Iran-Iraq War, when its access to arms markets were limited and the inability to buy spare parts made the foreign weapon systems it had almost obsolete, as well as to recent nuclear-related issues. 

These experiences carry the lesson that Iran must be, to the fullest extent possible, self-sufficient in arms manufacturing and that any purchases, even if actually completed, may prove to be worthless later on. For a more recent example, consider the only major arms purchase Iran has made over the decade: the Russian S-300 air-defense systems. These systems were purchased in 2007 but Russia, under U.S. pressure, didn’t deliver them until 2018. The UN arms embargo was never a barrier towards their legal delivery. When questioned about whether the United States would try to stop delivery in 2015, President Obama stated that he was surprised the sale had been held up for this long. 

Western arms markets are permanently closed to Iran. Even if countries like Germany or Sweden would be inclined to sell advanced arms to Iran, the fact that their arms manufacturers use so many U.S.-built components and technologies would mean that the U.S. government would have to consent to any such deal. Russia and China would face intense scrutiny from the United States if they were to sell arms to Iran, but arms technologies have frequently been bought and sold in secret as much of China’s military relationship with Pakistan shows. 

Meanwhile, Iran’s own arms research has seen progress. In fact, the air defense system Iran used to shoot down the state-of-the-art American RQ-4A Global Hawk drone, specifically built for survivability, in June 2019 was an Iranian medium-range air-defense system (Sevom Khordad), not an S-300. The delivery of four of the S-300 systems likely added to that local knowledge in that field. So Iran is likely to be looking for arms to purchase from Russia and China but it will be primarily looking for assistance in developing its own arms production capacities. Iran’s strongest interest in purchasing foreign-produced arms would be in the most technologically complicated fields, like attack aircraft, but concerns about being able to maintain long term access to parts and maintenance will hinder even that.

Alireza Ahmadi is a researcher and analyst focused on U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East. His work has been published by the National Interest, The Diplomat, The Hill, and Al-Monitor. Follow him on Twitter @AliAhmadi_Iran.