President Barack Obama, defending the recent Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), insists that his negotiators are providing an alternative to war. But the president is only referring to how the deal will defer a nuclear showdown. While that can is kicked down the road for decade, the agreement contains a startling non-nuclear concession: removing an international arms embargo which for years has placed limits on Tehran’s conventional military and support for international terrorism.
Removal of the arms embargo is likely to further mire the Middle East in more wars – from Syria to Yemen and beyond. Worse, the estimated $100 billion in sanctions relief and unfrozen assets the Islamic Republic is slated to receive will buoy the arsenals of its proxies – even if only a small percentage of such funds are spent to that end.
The current arms embargo is based on UN Security Council Resolutions 1747 (2007) and 1929 (2010), which placed restrictions on Iranian conventional arms transfers and its production and testing of ballistic missiles able to carry a nuclear warhead. Pursuant to the JCPOA, however, the UNSC unanimously passed Resolution 2231 recently, which replaces those international statutes.
The new resolution will allow Iran to acquire and transfer conventional arms in five years’ time (and to continue its ballistic missile program in eight years or potentially even earlier). Furthermore, even before that five-year mark, Iran can still purchase new weapons systems, but only permitted by Security Council review “on a case-by-case basis.” Nonetheless, given Iran’s numerous violations of similar Council resolutions in the past, it is unlikely to comply with the new timed-restrictions of this resolution, irrespective of its nuclear obligations. After the five-year limit, there will be no legal limitation on Iran’s ability to transfer conventional arms to states.
Iran has a track record of supplying arms to countries identified as U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism such as Syria and Sudan. Allowed to ship overseas, Iran’s weapons trade may get easier – instead of hiding the traditional routes used to ship weapons, it will only have to hide the end user, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Security Council Resolutions 1860 and 1701 call for member states to prohibit arms shipments to Hamas and Hezbollah, but Iran could still ship conventional arms to its fellow state sponsors of terror by declaring them part of a legal bilateral transaction and not intended for non-state actors. Methods the international community used to interdict Iranian conventional arms at sea or in the air in transit to terrorist proxies will no longer be legal without an extension of Resolution 1747. (Proliferation of WMDs and their delivery systems will however still be illegal under Resolution 1540).
Already, even before the JCPOA was reached, Tehran was slated to receive a variant of the S-300 air-defense system from Russia. In fact, first reported in 2007, the sale took advantage of a loophole in the UN Register of Conventional Arms and the existing arms embargo on Iran. While chiefly billed as a defensive weapon, its range means the S-300 provides Tehran the ability to bully military or civilian aircraft flying near its airspace.
Such aggressive Iranian behavior has sparked direct conflict with the U.S. before. During the Iran-Iraq War, for example, Washington responded to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf with overwhelming force. But an Iran able to update its arsenal with Russian and Chinese weaponry may feel emboldened to undertake even more bellicose activity that would result in a much bloodier and complex crisis. In fact, with the mere introduction of select weapon systems, such as supersonic anti-ship missiles (P-800 Yakhont) or sophisticated fighters (Su-30), Iran need not transform its full military to pose a credible threat.
While Iran has striven to develop its own indigenous military capabilities at low cost, much of it has been based on a few key platforms it had obtained before, or despite of, the embargos. These include Chinese anti-ship missiles, North Korean ballistic missiles and midget submarines, Russian anti-tank missiles, aging American air defense systems, and a diverse array of unguided rockets which were copied and modified for asymmetric tactics.
Analysts often cite the substantial gap between Iranian defense spending versus that of its Arab rivals in the Gulf. But a decade of conflict with lightly equipped non-state actors has demonstrated that the Islamic Republic does not need to spend heavily to exact a costly toll on its adversaries. Iran has been at the forefront of the asymmetrical arms industry by providing cheap, almost primitive weapons such as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) to Shi’ite militias in Iraq to unguided rockets in Gaza and Lebanon. These weapons require opponents to spend billions in response, as with the U.S. and NATO’s MRAPs/counter-IED systems and Israel’s Iron Dome.
Worse, Iran can share its access to new advanced weaponry and knowhow with its allies. Prior to the existing UN restrictions, Iran transferred Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missiles (or homemade copies) to Hezbollah, which then fired them at an Israeli warship during their 2006 war. Hezbollah also used anti-tank weapons acquired from Iran and Syria to repel advances by Israeli land forces in the same conflict, and have been the leading killer of Israeli troops ever since.
Analysts and policymakers continue to debate what Iran will do when it is flush with unfrozen assets and access to international markets. Despite a recent report citing a CIA estimate that Iran is much more likely to spend the majority of this money at home than on arms or it’s numerous proxies, Tehran, after all, remains committed to a host of foreign policy proposals that, in the words of the supreme leader, differ “180 degrees” from those of the United States. Nowhere is this more acute than in Syria, where Tehran has been spending billions of dollars to keep the Assad regime afloat.
For Iran, Syria is crucially important in that it serves as a key supply route to Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon. To date, Hezbollah remains Iran’s most successful attempt at the “export of the Islamic Revolution” and “resisting” Israel. Groups like Hezbollah, which have suffered pay cuts due to sanctions and UN arms embargos, stand to gain most from an empowered, armed, and enriched Iran. Between 2006 and 2009, Israeli intelligence reportedly appraised Hezbollah to have received more than $1 billion from the Islamic Republic. With at least $100 billion in unfrozen funds becoming available to Iran under the JCPOA, even if 1% of that funding went to Hezbollah that will be a significant sum to further destabilize the region. Consider this Iran’s 1% doctrine.
With this hypothetical extra billion dollars, Iran can decide to either expand production of the cheap asymmetrical systems it has so widely distributed, or invest in a few advanced systems, quantitatively and qualitatively increasing the arsenals of its military and that of its allies. Add to that the new legal cover to ship arms to its fellow state sponsors of terror, the JCPOA not only fills Tehran’s previously dwindling coffers but enhances the lethality of its terror network.
Patrick Megahan, editor of MilitaryEdge.org, is a research analyst focusing on military affairs at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran research analyst.