US will fight, but Iran arms embargo is on death row - analysis

How can the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran remain effective if the conventional arms embargo expires in October?

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement after signing it in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation declaring his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement after signing it in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington
Make no mistake.
The battle between the US and Iran – over whether the decade-old conventional arms embargo on the Islamic Republic remains past its scheduled expiration in October – is about two much bigger issues.
The first is nuclear weapons; the second is how much power the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps can project in the region – and not just arms sales in the abstract.
As such, the positions of the various UN Security Council members at Tuesday’s debate, where US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed to extend the arms embargo past October, reflected their positions on the multidimensional issues in the US-Iran standoff.
If Israel was rooting for the US initiative and hoped that some recent anti-Iran moves by neutral UN agencies might help, Tuesday’s UNSC hearing made the strategy look like a lost cause.
China and Russia did not merely oppose Pompeo’s initiative.
They also audaciously rejected the conclusion of officials from the UN Secretary General’s Office: that drones and cruise missiles which were used to attack Saudi Arabia in September 2019 – and seized off the coast of Yemen in February – were Iranian in origin.
These neutral findings were supposed to serve as a major basis for seeking to extend the conventional arms embargo by presenting the ayatollahs’ current irresponsible and destabilizing use of conventional weapons.
Moreover, China and Russia continued to criticize the IAEA, both for confronting Tehran over violation of its obligations to grant the atomic inspectors agency access to two undeclared nuclear sites as well as to resolve questions about undeclared nuclear material.

IT IS NOT enough for these countries to open up Iran to arms sales, especially from them.
Rather, China and Russia feel compelled to contradict any findings against Iran’s nuclear program or non-conventional arms, even when the conclusions come from neutral UN agencies.
In their eyes – willfully ignoring the Islamic Republic’s violence in the region from 2015-2018 – all the current tension is the fault of the US for pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018.
Germany, the UK and France (the EU-3) all slammed Iran for failure to fully comply with the IAEA and for its warring activities in the region, as demonstrated by the UN secretary-general’s findings that it attacked the Saudis in 2019.
But they also criticized the US for withdrawing from the nuclear deal, making it clear that their most important priority is maintaining the deal going forward.

THE EU-3 said they hope that Tehran will engage in dialogue over the issue, with Germany expressing concern that Iran writes “death to Israel” on some of its missiles.
Yet, Germany also – even if it was only a metaphor to say one wrong does not justify another one – described both the US pulling out of the nuclear deal as well as Iran’s nuclear and other violations as “running a red light.”
This metaphor is a Freudian slip regarding the European perspective on Iran.
They are honest enough to recognize when the Islamic Republic cheats against the IAEA or attacks countries in the Middle East.
These countries have supported the blacklisting of Iranian banks by the inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force, as well as an IAEA resolution pressing for Iranian compliance.
But from there, they have no strategy but dialogue with an adversary who is an expert at out-talking other diplomats until the clock winds down.
The EU-3 are cowed from going to the mat in confronting the ayatollahs by the idea that Iran might respond by trying to break out toward a nuclear weapon sooner or by bringing the region to its knees with conventional forces and proxies.
More minor countries like Nigeria, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and the Dominican Republic expressed a range of views: from requesting that the US roll back sanctions to help Iran deal with the corona wave, to encouraging all sides to show restraint.
The bottom line is that most of these countries are not excited about confronting Iran over the arms embargo and are concerned that such a conflict would undermine their main priority: the nuclear deal.
Multiple countries, including more friendly countries like Germany, noted that the US had left the nuclear deal.
They said this meant that the America has no standing to try to trigger UN global snap-back sanctions against the Islamic Republic in a bid to pressure it into agreeing to extend the conventional arms embargo.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif also put on a spectacular show for the council as the "victim" of US aggression.

BUT THE key man from Iran hovering over many of the UN members was not in the room.
IRGC Quds Force Chief Esmail Ghaani was on everyone’s minds in terms of the terror that he could inflict on the region and potentially beyond.
Since at least March, Ghaani has been frequently visiting Syria and Iraq in locations where his forces and proxies coordinate attempts to collect precision guided weapons against Israel or carry out attacks on US bases in Iraq.
Ghaani has spent most of his career until January working on Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere outside the Middle East. He is not as well liked by many Iranian proxies in Arab countries as his charismatic and fluent-Arabic speaking predecessor, Qasem Soleimani.
His visits have been tense and have not always gone smoothly. Israeli intelligence sources have told The Jerusalem Post that Ghaani has not succeeded at fully replacing Soleimani.
But just a few days ago, Ghaani symbolically threatened the US and Israel during a visit to Syria, and his threats still carry significant weight.
The smaller UN Security Council countries and even the EU-3 are all intimidated by Ghaani’s and the IRGC’s threats to destabilize the Middle East or the threat to break out toward nuclear weapons. Further, they are concerned about potential threats against their shipping interests and even some IRGC terror operations on European soil.
As Pompeo put it on Tuesday, paraphrasing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, if the UNSC extends the arms embargo, “who does Iran intend to crush” in revenge for such a move?
The problem for the US and Israel – and the Saudis for that matter – is that UNSC members’ immediate fears of Ghaani and Iran far exceed their fears of what might happen down the road with Tehran’s nuclear programs or with new conventional weapons it will be able to buy from China and Russia. This is despite Pompeo pointing out that some of them could soon fall within the range of Russian aircraft likely to be sold to Tehran.
It does not help America's cause that many traditional US allies actually agree with China, Russia and Iran when they refer to the US as acting as a bully against almost all multilateral initiatives in recent years.
How can the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran remain effective if the conventional arms embargo expires in October?
Unfortunately, all signs Tuesday were that this theoretical dilemma will become very concrete when the arms embargo is then put to rest.