How will the US “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran be able to continue if a major UN arms embargo against it expires in October?
And can the US do anything to maintain the arms embargo when it previously left the 2015 nuclear deal and arguably gave up its seat at the negotiating table?
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his staff leaked to the media that they intend to claim to the UN Security Council that Washington can still push to extend the UN conventional-arms embargo.
The UN conventional-arms embargo dates back to 2010. But when the Iran nuclear deal went into effect in October 2015, October 2020 was designated as a potential date for aspects of the embargo to expire.
There is a tricky premise to Pompeo’s campaign of arguing for a major role in discussions about extending the embargo against Tehran.
In May 2018, the Trump administration announced it had withdrawn from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and then ramped up a maximum-pressure campaign.
Pompeo’s idea is to claim that despite these factors, the US never issued a formal instrument permanently withdrawing from the deal, and US actions were taken to try to influence the Islamic Republic to improve its compliance or general behavior.
Essentially, the US is concerned that a loosening of the arms embargo will both rip apart the foundations underlying the maximum-pressure campaign and empower the ayatollahs with more powerful arms, including some dual-use items for a nuclear program.
After all, why should countries avoid trading oil and other commercial products with Tehran if the UN permits them to sell weapons?
If the US loses its influence in the process, questions will be asked about whether a full public withdrawal in May 2018 was the right move.
UN Security Council Resolution 1929 in 2010 prohibited states to directly or indirectly supply, or help to supply, Iran with major conventional weapons.
Banned weapons included: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, certain missiles and missile launchers.
Furthermore, the resolution prohibited the supply of related spare parts along with technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of the listed items.
However, it is unclear whether Pompeo’s idea is viable.
Yes, the US can make some formal arguments about not having withdrawn and accuse Iran of a variety of violations.
But the nuclear deal, as designed by the Obama administration, was walled off from other issues, such as ballistic-missile tests and Iranian-backed terrorism in the region.
When US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the deal in May 2018, virtually every country involved and even many of his top officials were saying Iran had complied with the deal’s nuclear provisions.
All of this would weaken the idea that the US was acting to get Iran to comply and that its renewed sanctions campaign did not materially violate its obligations and undermine its future involvement with the deal.
On the other hand, since the US withdrew, the EU and other countries have been trying to get the US to rejoin, which could suggest it was never fully out of the picture.
In addition, in March, new IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi started to take a different tone with Iran than his predecessor, Yukiya Amano, who helped construct the 2015 deal.
Grossi has called out Iran for refusing to clarify questions relating to undeclared nuclear material found by both the Mossad and the IAEA at the Turquzabad site and for refusing to grant inspectors access to multiple other undeclared sites discovered by the Mossad.
The spy agency had mapped out a variety of undeclared sites from the Iranian nuclear files it appropriated from Tehran in January 2018, sources close to Mossad Director Yossi Cohen told The Jerusalem Post in September 2019.
This could enable the US to argue that Iran violated the deal from day one in 2015 by concealing aspects of its nuclear program from the IAEA, which in turn justified the US maximum-pressure campaign and means the US never lost its right to weigh in as a party to the deal.
Of course, ultimately, the arms embargo will come down to the UN Security Council, where the US has a seat – Iran deal or no Iran deal – and Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign has had powerful effects even without UN support.
By this argument, just as the US’s unilateral sanctions on Iranian oil, without UN support, has hampered Iran’s economy, it is possible that Washington could limit arms trade with the Islamic Republic even if the UN ban expires.
Yet, there are significant holes in the pressure campaign regarding China, Russia and some other key countries. These countries are observing the UN arms ban, and if the ban drops, they can be expected to elevate trade with Iran in those areas.
The key sunset clauses for the Iran nuclear deal are in 2023, 2025 and 2030.
But the October deadline will be a major fight with huge implications, and it is still unclear how much the US will be able to wield influence.