Congress Can Help Ukraine With Confiscated Iranian Weapons

Congress Can Help Ukraine With Confiscated Iranian Weapons

Sending more Iranian weapons to Ukraine would be an effective complement to a larger aid effort at almost no additional cost to the U.S. taxpayer.

In February last year, we recommended that the Biden administration send Iranian weapons it interdicted en route to Houthi militants in Yemen to Ukraine. Soon after, journalists asked the State Department and Pentagon about the idea. Over the summer, the Department of Justice began the necessary legal asset forfeiture process to gain ownership of a large cache of seized Iranian weapons and ammunition. In October, the administration began sending these weapons to Ukraine to assist in the defense against Russia’s illegal war of aggression. Since that initial transfer, the Justice Department has not announced any similar asset forfeiture efforts, nor has the Pentagon shipped any more Iranian weapons to Kyiv. While Congress has dithered and failed to appropriate much-needed military support to Ukraine, why hasn’t the Pentagon moved to transfer more of Iran’s weapons to a Ukrainian army that is now forced to ration bullets?

The unsatisfying answer is that bureaucratic hurdles are likely disincentivizing senior defense officials from sending the weapons. Currently, the U.S. Attorney’s office, with coordination and support from the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, must first file an asset forfeiture complaint in federal court to take legal ownership of the seized Iranian weapons so they can be considered U.S. stocks and then transferred to Ukraine under Presidential Drawdown Authority.

To further incentivize and hasten the flow of captured Iranian weapons to Kyiv, Congress should legislate a narrow exemption in Title 18, Section 981 of the U.S. Code, giving the President the authority to declare weapons interdicted between Iran and Yemen as U.S. stocks, notwithstanding current statutory requirements for the filing of an asset forfeiture complaint. A narrow carve-out in which Congress could also legislate a sunset clause and require the President to submit an annual report detailing the use of the authority and an inventory of weapons transferred could enable President Biden to very quickly take weapons seized from a determined adversary and put them in the hands of a desperate partner.

Since that first and only transfer of Iranian weapons to Ukraine, the stakes in both Europe and the Middle East have only grown higher. Following the Hamas terrorist attack of October 7 and the outbreak of war in Gaza, the Houthis, from their redoubt in Yemen, have taken the Red Sea and the waterways surrounding the Arabian Peninsula hostage. Their drone and missile attacks have brought commercial shipping through the Suez Canal, which previously accounted for 30 percent of the world’s global container trade, to a standstill, impacting global supply chains. The Houthis’ weapons come courtesy of Iran, which continues to provide them with an arsenal of ballistic missiles, one-way attack drones, and land-based anti-ship missiles. U.S. Central Command’s most recent seizure in January of Iranian weapons bound for Yemen included critical parts of medium-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and anti-ship missiles—all weapons that Ukraine could employ to hold the Russian army at bay in Eastern Ukraine and the Russian navy under threat in the Black Sea.

This legislative fix would not be an adequate substitute for the aid the president has rightly requested from Congress. This week, President Biden provided an additional package of weapons, which was made possible by the Pentagon successfully negotiating more cost-savings in past weapons replenishment contracts. The announcement of this additional aid package, the first since December, is the result of budgeting wizardry and should underscore and not undermine the argument that more funding is needed. Passing the defense appropriations supplemental bill into law immediately and restarting a steady and predictable flow of lethal aid to Ukraine is in America’s national security interest and is far less costly than fighting a war against Russia later—a prospect that grows more likely if Russia is successful in Ukraine.

Sending more Iranian weapons to Ukraine would be an effective complement to this larger aid effort at almost no additional cost to the U.S. taxpayer. Congressional action that speeds the flow of captured Iranian weapons to Ukraine will further enable the Biden administration to assist a partner in need while exacting a cost on Moscow and Tehran for their efforts to allow each other’s aggression. Congress must act now to strengthen America’s partners and allies and thwart her colluding adversaries.

Jonathan Lord is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Follow him on X: @JonathanLordDC.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the center. Follow her on X: @AKendallTaylor.