Moscow made clear months ago that, once the United Nations arms embargo on Tehran expires in October, Russia intends to resume selling weapons to Iran. Not surprisingly, then, Moscow has reacted negatively to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s call for the UN Security Council to extend the arms embargo or, if it doesn’t, for the United States to exercise its right as a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) participant to unilaterally force the “snapback” of multilateral sanctions against Iran, despite the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.
According to Iranian state media, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denounced Pompeo’s plan as both “delusional” and “impractical.”
Russia’s Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, was especially critical of the US claim to still being a participant in the JCPOA: “The US attempts to present itself as ‘JCPOA participant’ have no future,” he tweeted.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused the United States of applying a selective approach to UNSC Resolution 2231 and asserted that, “For us, the case of the existing ban on arms deliveries to and from Iran was closed with the adoption of Resolution 2231. The embargo regime expires in October this year.”
As a result, Moscow can be expected to veto any US effort to get the Security Council to extend the JCPOA’s arms embargo on Iran, and to resist, undermine, and even defy any unilateral US effort to trigger “snapback” sanctions on Iran under the provisions of UNSC Resolution 2231. If Washington’s Western allies also object strongly to the Trump administration efforts to re-impose sanctions on Iran, Moscow will see this as an opportunity to form a “united front” with them against Washington—much as it did with France, Germany, and other Western governments opposed to the Bush administration’s insistence on military intervention in Iraq in 2003.
Yet, even if Britain, France, and Germany—the European signatories to the JCPOA—urge Moscow and Beijing to go along with Pompeo’s plan to extend the JCPOA arms embargo in order to avoid far more draconian snapback sanctions (and a brawl with the Trump administration over them), Moscow may decide to go ahead with arms sales to Iran just to show that Russia will not submit to Washington on this.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency stated that weapons systems Russia might sell to Iran include Su-30 fighter jets, Yak-130 trainer aircraft, and T-90 main battle tanks. Tehran was also said to be interested in buying S-400 air defense missiles and Bastion coastal defense systems. Moscow, reportedly, rejected an Iranian request to purchase S-400 air defense missiles in May 2019, but this decision could be revisited (Russia has already sold S-400s to Turkey and has talked about selling them to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but has only sold the earlier S-300 model to Iran in 2016, after years of delay).
Still, even if Moscow is not concerned about the effect of the resumption of arms sales on US-Russian relations, there may be other factors influencing Moscow to hold back on them. The most basic is that, as a result of existing US-backed sanctions against Iran, coupled with the steep decline in oil prices that occurred in early 2020, Tehran may simply not be able to buy much Russian weaponry—especially, the high-end expensive sort. Moscow, of course, could extend credit to Tehran, but it may be neither willing nor able to do so because of the economic straits it also faces from sanctions, low oil prices, and the impact of the coronavirus.
Another factor that might serve to restrain Moscow’s enthusiasm for selling arms to Iran could be the negative impact this would have on Russia’s relations with Saudi Arabia. As the outbreak of the Saudi-Russian oil price war in March showed, Riyadh can punish Moscow for behavior it disapproves of by keeping oil prices low. On the other hand, the Kremlin may view selling arms to Iran as a means of punishing Riyadh. Moscow may wish to show Saudi Arabia, that if Russia will not forego arms sales to Iran at Washington’s behest, it certainly will not do so at Saudi Arabia’s, either.
What Moscow might be willing to do, though, is hold off on the sale of certain weapons that Riyadh most fears Tehran obtaining in return for compensation purchases of Russian arms by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Similarly, Moscow may be willing to “compensate” Qatar for Russian arms sales to its Gulf rivals by allowing Doha to purchase more Russian weapons, as well.
An additional consideration that could serve to restrain Russian arms sales to Iran is the close relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has long lobbied Moscow not to sell sophisticated weapons to Iran. At the time of the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, Israel reportedly agreed to stop supplying Georgia with Israeli military technology in return for Russia not selling S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. Moscow also values Israel as a source of Western military technology.
Nevertheless, Moscow may see Israel as being unable to afford making too much of a fuss over renewed Russian arms sales to Iran. This is due to Putin’s subsequent sale of S-300s to Iran in 2015 and Israeli dependence on Russian forbearance for its attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria.
Ultimately, Putin’s response to the Pompeo plan is likely to be both principled and transactional. Putin will not abandon what he considers to be the principle of the JCPOA that allows Russia—and others—to sell arms to Iran beginning in October, and that the United States cannot withdraw from the agreement while still claiming to be a party to it in order to prevent this. On the other hand, what, when, and how much Russia sells to Iran may be impacted by whether or not others are willing to make concessions to Putin.
For example, an announcement by mid-November by either President Donald Trump or the Democratic president-elect that he is willing to renew—as Putin has sought since the beginning of the Trump presidency—the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is due to expire in February 2021, might lead to drawn out Russian-Iranian negotiations even while Russia asserts its right to sell arms to Iran. The same is the case for Saudi purchase orders involving advance payment for S-400s or other major Russian weapons systems and Western sanctions relief, as well as greater “understanding” for Moscow’s position vis-à-vis its annexation of Crimea and support for Russian nationalists in eastern Ukraine. Without such concessions, Russian arms sales to Iran are likely to occur soon after the JCPOA arms embargo expires in October.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
United Nations arms embargo on Iran
How will the world react? The Middle East Programs presents a series of global perspectives on how the world is approaching the October 2020 expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran.