European Union Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy
IranSource June 9, 2020

The European approach on the arms embargo on Iran

By Michel Duclos

On the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the European approach has been, to a large extent, inspired by legal concerns and a commitment to a rules-based international order. Europeans simply believe that the United States should respect the treaties or the agreements they have signed on to. It is likely they will follow the same approach as far as the UN arms embargo is concerned. The Iranians have embarked on a dangerous course of breaking with their obligations vis-à-vis the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but they have not withdrawn from the accord. Hence, there are no reasons to reject the lifting of the arms embargo as foreseen in UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 2231.

Political realities also matter. On the one hand, Iranian expansionism in the Middle East through proxies, whether it be the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or missiles transfers, is undoubtedly a source of concern. If the Iranians were to add to their current toolbox—arsenal of tanks, modern aircrafts, and anti-missile systems—that would only make the situation worse for their neighbors. Some reports indicate that a long list of contracts have been signed off on or are being negotiated, specifically, with Russia and China. The money could come from assets currently frozen abroad.

On the other hand, the chance to get an agreement to extend the UN arms embargo from Russia and China is close to zero. This is the heart of the problem.

How to deal with Russia and China

The only way to get around this difficulty is to find an arrangement inside the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—or in a larger format. In such an understanding, the arms embargo would be left to die of its natural death in October, but Moscow and Beijing would accept to refrain from transferring destabilizing weapons to Iran—at least in the immediate future. That could be called a “double restraint” understanding; the US accepting the lifting of the embargo and the other big powers giving up the idea of transferring weapons to Iran for the time being. In the past, there have been precedents where it took an exceptionally long time for Russia to hand over military systems that the Islamic Republic had purchased, such as the S-300. Along the same line, China, reportedly, deems that Iran is not a particularly attractive customer due to the re-imposition of US sanctions on Tehran. And, for China, as well as for Russia, their interest in some degree of stability in a very unstable region would be best served by the avoidance of further fueling a regional arms race.

It could be envisaged that such an arrangement takes place in the framework of a P5+1 summit—probably virtual—such as the one proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron. It is clear, however, that this would hardly be consistent with the current climate of hostility between Washington and Beijing—as they are still aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic—and with the deep distrust existing between Russia and the US.

The threat of snapback sanctions

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is agitating the idea of triggering United Nations snapback sanctions on Tehran. One possible interpretation of Pompeo’s declarations is that the Trump administration intends to close any option for a potential Democratic administration in 2021 to return to the JCPOA. If the snapback mechanism were to be implemented, Iran would probably denounce the nuclear deal—hence, making it impossible for a new administration to try to salvage the JCPOA. Another interpretation would be that the secretary of state is using the threat of snapback to advance his agenda of getting an extension on the arms embargo. In both cases, from a European viewpoint, Pompeo’s approach is leading to a political disaster. There is no way that Europe—and, of course, Russia and China—could support such a course of action. The US would be left completely isolated—more so than when the US invaded Iraq—while the balance of forces in the world is much less favorable to the West than was the case in 2003.

What Europe can do about the crisis in October

In that context, what can the E3—France, Germany, the United Kingdom—and their partners in Europe do? Their position has not been decided yet. It is likely that they will ultimately push for a “double restraint” formula. The details of such an understanding will be complicated to craft, such as the duration of the arrangement, types of systems, verification, connections with the JCPOA and so on. There is also no doubt that the hardliners in Tehran would do everything possible to prevent big powers from arranging on those lines. Which means that the Europeans should be very proactive in reaching out to a broad range of Iranian officials. They should stress to them that the “double restraint” arrangement would not compromise the right for Iran to acquire new weaponry.

But the question remains: how to influence Russia and China on one side and the US on the other?

The reasons why Moscow and Beijing could be interested in a “double restraint” approach have already been mentioned. But European diplomats could also plead that such a formula is necessary to preserve the possibility for a future Democratic administration to return to the JCPOA. Abstaining to arm Iran further would also be an opportunity for Russia and China to advance their interests in the Arab Gulf countries, which are becoming more and more important in the eyes of Moscow and Beijing.

In the US, everything is now dominated by the November presidential election. US President Donald Trump is already taking a strong anti-China stance in his campaign, in part, due to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the US economy. The point which should be raised when talking to the Trump administration is that a showdown on Iran in the context of the campaign is a risky business. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the Chinese would have kept a low profile on Iranian matters, in lieu with Russian views. It may be different this time, with much more assertive Chinese diplomacy. Beijing could see the opportunity to inflict damage to the Americans and take the lead in an international opposition to Washington. The Europeans could point out to Washington that this is not the time to hand over an easy diplomatic victory to China.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia and Russia were recently at war on the oil market at the expense of American interests. It has been an important success for President Trump to conclude an oil deal with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico, and close the file—which was done in a surprisingly discreet way. It shows that President Trump, when he wants to, is maintaining an impressive capacity to settle difficult issues through a few phone calls. The same method should be applied, with the help of other parties and, notably, the Europeans, to find a way out of the UN arms embargo and snapback Iranian conundrum. 

Ambassador Michel Duclos a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a senior advisor to the Institut Montaigne. Follow him on Twitter: @MrjDuclos

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.

Image: Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini take part in meeting with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Brussels, Belgium, May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman/Pool