June 9, 2020
Removing the UN arms embargo on Iran will reward Tehran’s malign actions
Israeli policymakers unequivocally support the US demand to extend the United Nations arms embargo on Iran that will expire in October. Israel considers the embargo’s extension a rightful demand based on strategic, diplomatic, legal, and moral reasons.
Removing the embargo will amount to a capitulation to Iran, rewarding the regime for gross violations of international law. For years, Tehran has repeatedly disobeyed—flagrantly and systematically—UN Security Council resolutions (UNSCRs) forbidding Iran to export all types of weapons and related materials to other countries, non-state actors, and terror organizations.
The Security Council resolutions that Iran has violated over the years include resolutions addressing specific countries, such as Lebanon (UNSCR 1701) and Yemen (UNSCR 2216), and resolutions dealing exclusively with Iran, which forbid it, among other things, to import or export arms; e.g. UNSCRs 1747 in 2007 and 1929 in 2010. Both were replaced in 2015 by UNSCR 2231, which included a five-year international arms embargo.
Over the past decades, in violation of UNSCR 1701, Iran has supplied Lebanese Hezbollah with advanced weapon systems and military technology. Currently, Iran is exploiting the civil war in Syria to entrench itself militarily in the country, endeavoring to build-up a war machine just as it did in Lebanon. Simultaneously, Iran is arming the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. Following the “Hezbollah model,” and in blatant violation of UNSCR 2216, Iran is transferring missiles and weapon systems to the Houthis in Yemen to not only keep the war going, but also to pose a direct threat to Saudi Arabia and to project power along the Bab al-Mandab Strait. In Iraq, as well, Iran is deploying missiles and arming the Shia militias as an independent force beyond the reach of the Iraqi government.
The expectation of the Obama administration and European countries—led by Britain, Germany, and France—that Iran would scale down its malign activity in the region, following the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), failed the test of reality. Rather, it led to the opposite outcome. Iran exploited the deal and UNSCR 2231, which removed effective sanctions in the fields of energy and finance and made them difficult to reinstate. Thus, covered by the deal’s impunity before the United States withdrew from it, Iran went on to expand its hostile actions in the region—particularly, in arms transfers—without paying a price for its harmful policy.
Opponents to the Trump administration’s initiative to extend the arms embargo—including former senior officials in the Obama administration—contend, among other arguments, that the extension would weaken the impact of past and future UN Security Council resolutions, harm the credibility of the US, and set a problematic precedent. From an Israeli perspective, the opposite is true. UNSCR 2231 cannot oblige one side, only. The international community cannot be expected to implement the Security Council resolutions while Iran has been violating the same resolutions for years. Ignoring Iran’s flagrant transgressions—or, effectively, rewarding them—would begin a slippery slope that would steadily undermine the authority of the Security Council and its ability to enforce the operative clauses of its resolutions.
Israel has first-hand experience with the dangerous results that come from the troubling gap between UN Security Council resolutions and their implementation on the ground. One notable example is UNSCR 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Originally, the resolution aimed to restore the control of the Lebanese government and its armed forces over South Lebanon and to remove Hezbollah from the border with Israel. On the ground, however, Hezbollah gradually returned to the border, rebuilt, and expanded its military infrastructures with the assistance of the Lebanese military. Meanwhile, the UN peacekeeping force, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL)—tasked with supervising the resolution’s implementation—and the UN institutions in New York ignored the robust military build-up of Hezbollah.
Given that the UN chose to ignore gross violations of its own resolutions, it should not be a surprise that the self-confidence of Hezbollah and Iran has continued to grow over the years. For example, Hezbollah has started blatantly threatening UNIFIL to prevent it from implementing its mandate on the ground and Iran has upgraded the quantity and quality of its military aid to Hezbollah, with a special effort to provide it with precision-guided munitions to expand and increase the threat it poses to Israel’s civilian home front.
From an Israeli perspective, removing the arms embargo on Iran has problematic implications. Firstly, this measure would boost the Iranian regime and its organs, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force, and would exacerbate the proliferation of Iranian conventional arms across the Middle East and along Israel’s borders.
Secondly, repealing the arms embargo would set a problematic precedent for a similar decision in 2023 that involves removing the limitations on Iran’s missile program. Iran pursued missile research, development, and testing, initiated a special project to increase the destructive power of its warheads, and launched a military satellite into space in April. This launch supports its efforts in developing inter-continental ballistic capabilities. This is yet another aspect of Iran’s violations—at least of the spirit of UNSCR 2231.
Thirdly, the removal of the embargo will likely encourage Russia, which seeks to return and play a major role in the Middle East and in the Gulf at the expense of American dominance, to sell Iran advanced air-defense systems, such as the S-400, despite its previous hesitations. Beyond the irresponsible Iranian use of such capabilities—demonstrated by the downing of a Ukrainian passenger airliner in January—advanced air-defense systems could offer Iran a sense of immunity and encourage it to accelerate its nuclear program, which it resumed expanding in May 2019.
Israel is not interfering in the international disagreement regarding the reinstatement of all UN sanctions against Iran by triggering the ‘snapback’ mechanism enshrined in the JCPOA. At the same time, Israel is, probably, not impressed by Iranian threats to withdraw from the nuclear deal. From Israel’s perspective, the JCPOA suffers from dangerous deficiencies—top among them, the sunset clauses and the shortcomings regarding the ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear weapons-related activities. Moreover, Iran’s violations of the research and development restrictions are mostly irreversible.
Should a Russian veto block the US effort to extend the embargo, Israel will actively support any American-led initiative to form a like-minded coalition of willing states that will apply a rigid arms embargo on Iran, including on allegedly defensive platforms, such as surface-to-air missile systems or advanced anti-ship cruise missiles. Such an embargo would aim to increase the pressure on Russia to avoid selling problematic and balance-shifting weapon systems to Iran.
From Israel’s vantage point, the campaign to extend the conventional arms embargo on Iran must not divert attention from Iran’s expanding nuclear program and from applying pressure to stop it. Iran’s nuclear file is the most acute and urgent issue.
The confrontation regarding the arms embargo, its linkages to the nuclear file, and the broad consensus in Congress on this issue, offer opportunities to Israel—first and foremost, to engage in an urgent and deep dialogue with the Trump administration and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s team in parallel with European countries. The objective of such a dialogue would be to advance a comprehensive international strategy vis-à-vis Iran and to increase pressure to block its harmful activities.
Colonel (res.) Udi Evental is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at IDC Herzliya. Follow him on Twitter: @uevental.
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.