Extending the Arms Embargo on Iran: Dimensions and Expectations




As the date for lifting the embargo on the sale of  conventional  arms to Iran draws closer  (October 18, 2020), the United States is continuing its diplomatic efforts to suspend   one of the terms of the nuclear agreement and to extend the arms embargo.

These efforts aim not only to hamper one of the most important gains for Iran under the nuclear deal, but also seek to prevent Russia and China, which reject the extension of the arms embargo, from changing the balance of power in the Middle East and to deny  Beijing and Moscow the ability to implement arms deals with Iran that were  signed in the past.

The United States apparently failed to pressure the European parties to activate the snapback provision that  would immediately return all previous international sanctions imposed on Iran that existed before the nuclear agreement. There would be no need to vote on  a new resolution, and no need to enter discussions with the United States about its request to extend the arms embargo on Iran.

The United States has shared a draft resolution with members of the Security Council under Chapter VII to extend the arms embargo on Iran, but this  may face a Russian or Chinese veto, or both, and perhaps a European refusal as well.  To  galvanize support among Security Council members to   extend   the arms embargo on Iran, the United States submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council on June 22 to condemn Iran and hold it responsible for the missile attacks that targeted the  oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia. This resolution was based on a new UN report that  confirmed Iran’s involvement in the missile attacks. The draft resolution submitted by the United States highlighted  “Serious concern about the threat these attacks pose to global energy supplies, freedom of navigation in the region, and the safety of people working in the energy, maritime and environmental sectors.” Accordingly, it is necessary not to permit Iran to increase  its armament capabilities.

If the United States fails to pass a resolution to extend the arms embargo on Iran, Washington says it will invoke  a provision allowing any of the seven signatories  to the nuclear agreement to restore all sanctions  on Iran. The   activation of the dispute resolution mechanism (DRM)  based on Security Council Resolution 2231  involves six gradual steps  which will take 65 days. These steps may culminate in the Security Council re-imposing UN sanctions on Iran. However, this path is full of obstacles.  To begin with, China and Russia believe  that the nuclear agreement and Resolution 2231 go hand-in-hand and cannot be separated, and that Washington after  it announced its withdrawal  from the nuclear agreement has no right to invoke  the DRM. In addition, although the European Troika voted on June 18, 2020 on the IAEA board of governors’ decision that condemned Iran,  they still want  to  work  with Iran under  the nuclear agreement, and do not  seek to invoke  the DRM.  However, the report issued by the IAEA on  June 5 is based on a draft resolution submitted by the three European countries that signed the nuclear agreement and could be the beginning of  European moves to activate the DRM and reimpose UN sanctions,  or at least a round of negotiations that would end  with the arms embargo  on Iran being extended.

 The invocation of the DRM,  conditioned by  the United States proving that it has the right to do so as a member of the nuclear agreement, needs time. Moreover, the Trump administration is preparing for   the upcoming elections in November 2020. Not to mention, the complications involved in  invoking the DRM;  the process  involves    time-bound stages beginning with dialogue between the parties if there is  a complaint against Iran for not complying with its commitments to  the nuclear deal,  ending with a decision to activate the DRM.  The European move remains the most appropriate legal solution to reach this goal; triggering the DRM.

The United States  exploring alternative options would either result in extending the arms embargo on Iran or re-imposing  a wide range of sanctions that were in effect   before the 2015  nuclear agreement, or  re-imposing the six resolutions: 1835, 1803, 1929, 1747, 1737and 1669, including the arms embargo on  Iran. Theoretically, a majority of UNSC members need to approve the implementation of  the pre-2015  sanctions.

American efforts did not stop here,  as the US administration  took a preventive and unilateral step to confront the expected  arms deals between Iran and both China and Russia if  the  arms embargo extension failed.  The United States added   Iran to the list of countries that are not cooperating with  its counter-terrorism efforts pursuant to   Article 40 of the Arms Export Control Law.

To block any cooperation with Iran, if the arms embargo expires and is not renewed, Congress would play a key role in  initiating new embargoes on the sale of weapons between Iran and China and Russia. In addition, it would play a key role in imposing   more sanctions on foreign assistance provided to Tehran  to develop its ballistic missile program.

The UN report issued on June 13, 2020 clearly indicated that the cruise missiles used in the attacks against two Aramco oil installations and an international airport in Saudi Arabia last year were of Iranian origin. More recently, the IAEA board of governors issued a resolution calling on Iran to cooperate fully with the agency and meet its requests without delay, including  providing immediate access to the sites specified by the agency. This is the first IAEA decision against Iran since 2015. Both the UN report and the recent decision of the IAEA board of governors  support the ongoing United States’ efforts  to prepare the  groundwork  to extend the arms embargo on Iran through the Security Council in one way or another, or to impose  unilateral sanctions against those who sell arms to Iran.

The Russian and Chinese Positions

Both China and Russia condemned the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the return of sanctions against Iran in 2018. They considered it a unilateral withdrawal and a violation of  the provisions  of the agreement due to the IAEA’s confirmation of  Iran’s commitment to the terms of the nuclear agreement signed in 2015.Therefore,  they rejected US demands to renew the arms embargo on Iran or to buy weapons openly and formally. They threatened to use  their veto against any resolution proposed  by the United States to extend the arms embargo on Iran.

The two countries have also adopted a unified legal position to contest the United States’ right to activate  the DRM because  Washington withdrew from the nuclear agreement by imposing sanctions on Iran and  the IAEA  confirmed Iran’s commitment to the terms of the nuclear agreement. The Russians cite the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) advisory opinion in  1971, which has become one of the fundamental principles governing international relations.  The ICJ advisory opinion stated that  “a party who disowns or does not fulfill its own obligations cannot be recognized as  retaining  the rights which  it claims to derive from this relationship. “

The position of the two countries is influenced by several factors, most   notably that they oppose the unilateral  undermining of the nuclear agreement by the United States since Iran has stayed committed to it, while the United States has violated  it. In addition, Iran has become part of the conflicting issues between the three countries,  especially the trade war led by the  Trump administration against China since 2018, and similar sanctions on Russia. Not to mention, Beijing and Moscow concluded arms deals with Iran that will be implemented once the arms embargo on Iran expires.

The United States may succeed in pressuring the Europeans to activate the DRM. As a result, Russia and China will not be able to use their veto, and sanctions will be reimposed after passing  through the stages to activate  the DRM. 

If all  US attempts fail, even after adding Iran to the countries that do not fully cooperate in counter-terrorism efforts, Washington can use the Republican bill to impose sanctions on any entity or country, including Russia and China that sells weapons to Iran. Highly lucrative Iranian armaments contracts could prompt a number of countries to take the risk of bearing US sanctions to win  these huge contracts. This would render  US sanctions on countries exporting armaments to  Iran ineffective and the only way to completely  prevent the sale of arms to Iran would be through a binding UN  resolution.

 The Position of the European Parties

As for the European parties, they have openly declared their opposition to the United States’ initiative which undermines the nuclear agreement with Iran. Through the representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, they  denounced the statements of American officials about the  US administration resorting to activating the DRM  under  Resolution 2231 provided  in the nuclear agreement. The European parties stressed that the United States withdrew from the agreement and has no right to claim otherwise.

The European parties continue to comply with  the agreement as they believe it is an effective instrument to deal with the Iran nuclear issue. Earlier this year, in January 2020, Britain, France and Germany halted the activation of   the  DRM after Iran announced its fifth breach in a series of violations of  its nuclear commitments. The parties resorted to diplomatic negotiations rather than deepening the conflict.

On the other hand, the European position is not completely in opposition to the US position, but rather the Europeans employ a carrot and stick approach in dealing with Iran generally  and during the current period particularly, which witnessed several Iranian violations in respect of the nuclear agreement and its missile program.

With regard to the decision  to extend  the UN arms embargo on Iran, the foreign ministers of the European Troika have expressed their concern about lifting the arms embargo on Iran. The European parties aim to increase pressure on Iran through diplomatic channels and to dissuade the United States from activating the DRM in light of  the time factor and to keep the door open for the possible return of the United States to the agreement if there is a change of administration after  the upcoming  November elections. They also noted that the European Union embargo on conventional arms exports  and missile technology to Iran will continue until  2023.

Recent developments indicate that the European parties will not stand idle,   but they will use their diplomatic clout to reach a settlement to satisfy all  parties disputing whether to extend the arms embargo on Iran or not.  Among the available options is to create  a dual understanding  to facilitate US consent to lifting  the arms embargo on Iran in exchange for other major powers, namely Russia and China, giving up the idea of selling or transferring weapons to Iran in the meantime. Such an understanding is extremely complicated and would be hard to implement considering the details such as the duration of the agreement, verification, and control methods, and how to relate it to the terms of the nuclear agreement.

Another option on the table  for the European parties  to achieve a  settlement is to reach a compromise that will lead to a temporary extension of the arms embargo on Iran on less severe terms than the previous one, ensuring that  US concerns are addressed. However, Iran is betting on time and a positive outcome after the upcoming US elections. Such  diplomatic efforts would face American intransigence, since the current administration is exhausting all diplomatic means   to undermine the nuclear deal before the upcoming November elections.

The European settlement efforts will take into consideration the position of Russia and China regarding arms sales to Iran. The  Russians delayed the delivery of the S-300 military defense system to Iran for a long period of time. The  Chinese favor the Arab Gulf markets over Iran because of the remarkable China-Gulf rapprochement and its increasing financial and economic value.

 Iranian Options

The  US administration’s announcement to extend the arms embargo provoked violent reactions from the Iranian side which believes that any step in this direction is a violation of Security Council Resolution 2231. Iran believes that lifting of the arms embargo is an integral part of the nuclear agreement, and that the United States has no  right to interfere in the terms  and conditions of the nuclear agreement. Iran warned of “serious consequences” and a “devastating response” if the Security Council agreed “under any  title, and by any  mechanism and method” on the US plan to extend the arms embargo  on Iran.  Iran’s most important options can be outlined as follows:

1-The diplomatic path: Iran has started its diplomatic efforts to thwart American goals because the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement and thus cannot benefit from its provisions. At the same time, Iran does not trust the European parties as a result of previous and current experiences regarding European promises to comply with the agreement and  Europe  may   pursue  an independent  policy away from   the Americans. In addition, Russia and China may compromise on the Iran issue  over other common interests with their American rivals. Therefore, diplomacy is insufficient as the US administration  is determined to extend  the arms embargo on  Iran.

2-Escalation and the creation of  a complex security environment: The failure of diplomacy may push Iran to continue to create tension and chaos in the region and to use its tools to threaten regional stability and security, so as to create a complex security environment for international powers so that they do not respond to the American objective to   extend  the arms embargo, similar to what Iran  did after the US oil sanctions exemptions were ended. However, this bet may pose a risk to Iran  itself, especially after the assassination of  the  of the Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani by the United States to deter Iran from further acts of aggression, and Trump’s recent threats and orders to the US Navy  to target any  IRGC gun boats that harass American ships in the Gulf.

3. Nuclear escalation: Iran will increase  its  level of uranium enrichment by more than what was agreed upon, and restart some reactors that  it pledged to freeze during the nuclear agreement. Prior to the nuclear agreement, the level of uranium enrichment was 20 percent and Iran believes that a return to this level   will grant it more pressure cards against the United States and the European countries. It may have already started enriching more uranium  after the IAEA announced in its latest report that Tehran’s stockpile of enriched uranium exceeds by eight times the limit set out in the 2015 nuclear deal.

4.Withdrawal from the NPT: Withdrawing from this treaty is one of most salient options which Iran has always threatened to use.

5.Iran also has another option, which is to accept the  extension of  the arms embargo in exchange for keeping the agreement, betting that  Trump will not succeed in the elections in November 2020, which may change the equation to its advantage  according to what it believes in. This option also includes the possibility of entering direct negotiations with the United States. This may be understood from the supreme leader’s statements about heroic flexibility, especially as Iran is going through  its worst crisis since the revolution. The coronavirus crisis has weakened the government’s ability to meet and face the challenges.


Undoubtedly, the attempt to extend the arms embargo on Iran before October 2020 will test the United States’ ability to continue with its strategy toward Iran. This will depend on the European position which keeps fluctuating. The Europeans  do not seem inclined to invoke the snapback provision. In addition, the Russian and Chinese positions oppose the US policy, which could push them to use their veto against any US decision targeting Iran. This could be a major setback for the American strategy. However, if the United States succeeds in extending the embargo, the gains that Iran has counted on from the nuclear agreement would completely disappear. Iran would then have no choice but to announce the death of the nuclear agreement and thus withdraw from  it, as it has repeatedly threatened to do. In this case, it will face the return of UN or European sanctions against it, or accept the extension of  the arms embargo reluctantly fearing the  repercussions of canceling the nuclear agreement or the escalation in  its nuclear file. However, Tehran’s acceptance of such a step will affect the government’s image  internally and externally, and   it will appear further weakened. If the diplomatic efforts by the parties to the nuclear agreement are successful, this will probably result in  an agreement which limits weapons sales to Iran and imposes restrictions on the type of arms, the number, and delivery dates. However, it gives Russia and China the opportunity to benefit from lucrative arms deals. At the same time, it will prevent the collapse of the nuclear deal completely without Iran entering into comprehensive and public negotiations with the United States.

Editorial Team