In salons across the Gulf, decision makers sip coffee and brainstorm answers to tough foreign policy questions. Among them, the lifting of the UN arms embargo on Iran this October. With six months to go, these conversations haven’t yet focused on what the Gulf itself will do once the embargo dissolves, but on what American options are for keeping it in place.
As Gulf analysts see it, the US has three options. The first is convincing the members of the UN Security Council to extend the current arms embargo or risk the US demanding snapback of all sanctions waived by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and collapsing what’s left of the Iran nuclear deal. The US does not have to remain in the JCPOA to be a participant in the deal under UNSCR 2231.
But this seems unlikely to Gulf leaders, based on comments they have heard from Paris, London and other European capitals about the fragility of that argument.
The second is unilateral action. This could take the shape of an Executive Order sanctioning companies that produce components of weapons made by Iran for export or made elsewhere for sale to Tehran. This option could be nearly as crippling as the arms embargo. With the producers of every screw in a 50-caliber sniper rifle facing sanctions, it would notably disrupt Iran’s defense supply chain, and could slow production in Russia and China of items produced with a global vendor base.
The third option is pressing for a new UN resolution that falls short of the current embargo but still limits the items Iran can purchase and sell. This option requires statesmanship and takes time. The tricky part is convincing Moscow and Beijing, who stand to gain from sales made to Iran once the embargo is lifted. These two of the five permanent UN Security Council members might only agree not to veto such a resolution if the items it restricts are those they do not intend to or believe they have a chance to sell. For instance, Iran has begun producing its own medium-range air defense systems in recent years and will be less interested in these than might have been the case in pre-embargo 2007.
Gulf countries carefully cultivate relationships with both China and Russia, and are expecting a request from the US to engage both diplomatically on the arms embargo. However, as one Emirati senior diplomat clarified to this author, the Gulf does not have enough leverage with either when it comes to core political and foreign policy issues to move this issue.
What will Iran’s acquisition choices mean for the Gulf?
Conventional thinking among some US analysts shrugs off the end of the embargo in October, noting that Iran does not have the funds or the inclination to acquire large weapons systems and will therefore not pose a greater threat to US interests. This analysis ignores three things. First, that Iran has flirted with the purchase of S-400s or S-500s, national level combat systems. Second, that Iran’s primary foreign policy tool is the deployment of armed proxies. Arming and equipping small, unconventional militias requires troop-level combat systems, and lifting the embargo will make it easier for Iran to acquire and transfer weapons it currently must smuggle. Third, that Iran’s modus operandi is to upgrade the components of existing weapons systems instead of acquiring new ones, so the intended strategy may not be to procure large systems but to amend what they already have with leapfrogged technologies.
One question that deserves attention is whether Iran would leverage the end of the embargo to upgrade the Artesh or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Artesh are the red-headed stepchild neglected in the shadow of the golden-haired IRGC favorite. Throughout the maximum pressure campaign by the US, Tehran has demonstrated a preference for supporting the IRGC above other priorities. If this continues once Iran is uncuffed but still short on funds, it will underscore the regime’s commitment to extra-territorial destabilization of the region, versus to augmenting defensive capabilities to protect its homeland.
At that point, the Artesh should question even more seriously than they already do whether their leaders have their interests at heart. If Iran picks a fight with the US through any of the recent or new methods of provocation, the Artesh will be called to the front lines, but they will not be well-equipped.
Iran’s acquisition preferences post-arms embargo can be expected to reflect this favoritism. Considering this, what items prohibited by the series of UN resolutions that comprise the embargo present the greatest threat to Gulf states if acquired?
Hydraulic presses are a base component of the explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) that were a favorite of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani prior to their removal from the battlefield, and are responsible for blowing limbs off soldiers and civilians in multiple countries across the region. Delivery of hydraulic presses to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, for instance, will make them instantly more lethal. “The concern with EFPs in Iran’s hands, and thus the hands of their proxies, is that they will again have an easily transportable, hard to detect weapon that is highly effective against US or Coalition ally armored vehicles. You can’t see them, you can’t find them, you can’t stop them. You’ll see a drastic increase in casualties any place they are deployed,” says Sean Robertson, a military munitions consultant with CACI-The Wexford Group.
Electronic warfare capabilities like anti-radar missiles targeting surface-to-air defense systems would give Iran the ability to take down Patriot batteries and THAAD systems on a first strike, then fly right over them with the same missiles used to attack the Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq in September 2019,or aircraft like the SU-30 in which they’ve reportedly been interested. Delivery of anti-radar missiles (or HARMs) would change the nature of the game in Syria. The Turks should be even more concerned than the Gulf about this.
Additional surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) like the SA-7s will be another tempting acquisition for Iran. They’ve managed to supply these to proxies despite the embargo. Lifting of the arms embargo could result in a steady flow to proxies. These present an immediate and direct threat to US and allies’ planes and helicopters. With no restriction on their acquisition, the US Department of Defense will have to rethink their military footprint in the region writ large because a proliferation of SAMs among Iran-backed militias will place even the cargo planes that supply our troops in clear and present danger.
Staying on the topic of missiles, should Iran acquire hypersonic cruise missiles, the Gulf would face several nail-biting years before they are able to take delivery of new systems to defend themselves against this upgraded threat.
Likewise, the rapid advancement of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) means Iran will have a variety of options in high quality aircraft engines, optical lenses to improve their ability to produce imagery, and industrial machinery used to manufacture aircraft components. Andy Dreby of Red Six Solutions, a consultancy that helps the US and NATO test counter-UAS systems, points out to this author that expanding the marketplace from which Iran can purchase “makes it easier for them to hide their sources. If the intelligence community only has to look at China for sources, it makes it easier to identify supply chains. If they have to look at the whole world, it’s easier for Iran to obfuscate.”
The IRGC harassment of US Navy ships in the Northern Persian Gulf in mid-April points to the potential risk that post-embargo access to new anti-ship and naval mines poses to security in the Strait of Hormuz. Even without the embargo, the expected timeframe to clear the Gulf of naval mines placed by Iran is eight to twelve months. The US had a tough time courting European partners to join an alliance to counter Iran in the Strait after a meeting in Warsaw in the summer of 2019. Europe feared such an alliance would provoke Iran. A similar task would be Herculean if attempted after a proliferation of Iranian naval mines drove the stakes higher.
On land, acquisition of anti-tank mines will offer Iran an anti-armor capability that is simple enough for untrained militia members to employ against not just tanks but vehicles of any type. These mines in the arsenals of proxy forces will reduce the training time and numbers of personnel Iran needs to inflict damage on the militaries and civilians of regional adversaries on the ground.
In the air, Iran may have reached the end of the upgrades it can make to the airframes in its inventory and their ability to “clone” advanced American airframes may be overstated, according to US analysts closely tracking their capabilities. In this case, Tehran could seek to finalize the procurement discussion with Russia for the SU-30, which is said to outperform Saudi and Israeli fighter jets and host anti-shipping cruise missiles.
Low funds may not impede purchases
The fact that Iran is anathema to international financial markets is reassuring to the Gulf on one level. It is difficult for Tehran to get its hands on cutting-edge military technology without dollars and lots of them. But Iran has protected its proxy and ballistic missiles programs from the slow starvation suffered by other sectors during the US sanctions-induced economic crisis. The international community could be surprised by the level of funding that materializes for arms purchases when Iran is free to make them.
The lack of dollars available to Iran may not be altogether a sales disincentive to Russia and China. Article 146 of Iran’s constitution prohibits foreign countries from establishing bases within Iran’s borders. And Iran’s public balked in 2016 when Russia was permitted use of Iran’s territory for launching air strikes in Syria. But could Moscow be invited as a training contingent to co-locate with Iranian forces under the guise or for the secondary purpose of providing capacity building, in exchange for discounted rates on Russian arms? In November 2019, Iran invited China to take part in its Chabahar seaport project, and as one astute Kuwaiti analyst commented recently to this author, “nobody in the region admits anything it does with China is for military purposes.”
How the Gulf is reacting
Even before October, the debate about whether to allow the arms embargo to expire will put sweat on the brow of Gulf countries. Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait, who painstakingly navigate the ridgeline between the US and Iran, may be placed in a position where they are asked to make statements either in support of or opposition to lifting the embargo. Qatar has strengthened ties with the US in recent years, launching a Strategic Dialogue in 2018 and installing more permanent infrastructure for US forces at Al Udeid air base. Nevertheless, as a senior Qatari diplomat accurately joked to this author when asked if the embargo debate would put them between a rock and a hard place, “it wouldn’t be the first time we’d be asked to pick a side between Iran and the US.”
The Government of Yemen, on the receiving end of Iranian proxy armaments, is definitive in its position on the embargo, and in agreement with almost 400 members of the US Congress. Ambassador Ahmed bin Mubarak, Yemen’s representative in Washington, stated to this author that “lifting the UN arms embargo on Iran will have catastrophic effects on the stability of the Middle East region and will exacerbate the conditions there. Many international reports mention that Iran is a major arms supplier to radical groups in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, including those listed as terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. In Yemen such lifting will definitely send a very wrong and untimely message.”
The UAE has come under pressure to reduce tensions with Iran in light of COVID-19, and although Emirati leaders are actively exploring ways to do just that, they point out that the humanitarian assistance offered to Iran does not imply acceptance or approval of Iran’s escalatory activities. They stress that despite their emphatic opposition to the UN allowing Iran to up-arm, the UAE will not take any unilateral actions even if the embargo is lifted and will act in conjunction with the US and other partners.
Despite the spectrum of positions on Iran exhibited by Gulf governments, one thing they agree on is the need for the US and Europe to arrive at one voice on the embargo, and on Iran’s proxy activities across the board. They stress that as long as Iran is able to exploit the daylight between American and European interlocutors, they will continue to push the limits of international law.
Kirsten Fontenrose is director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative 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.