by Henry Johnson
The benefits that Iran will accrue by complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) have set off alarm bells in Washington. Opponents have misrepresented the deal’s lifting of an international arms embargo as a major and unnecessary concession to Iran. The arms embargo, however, was designed to end if and when Iran concluded a nuclear deal with world powers. The delayed end of the embargo is the result of the Obama administration’s tough negotiating tactics, which bordered on brinksmanship.
The other objection to this element of the deal, that it will destabilize the region, fails to account for the geopolitical reality of the Middle East. Although Iran will gain partial access to the global arms trade, it will take decades of daunting investments for Iran to rival the conventional capabilities of its adversaries. Its future access to that market will only negligibly improve its military posture. If US allies in the region escalate their own conventional military procurements, the deal might even weaken Iran’s relative position..
The embargo is scheduled to end in a two-phase sequence. Five years from “Adoption Day,” the UN Security Council (UNSC) will suspend an embargo on arms shipments to and from Iran. Three years later, it will suspend an embargo on Iran’s access to ballistic missile technology.
It came as a surprise to many when Iran accepted these drawn-out sunset provisions. Iran, Russia, and China argued for suspending the embargo immediately: on “Implementation Day” or sometime in early 2016. President Obama took a firm stance against their demands, hurtling the talks past multiple last-minute extensions. In response to the demand for an immediate end to the arms embargo, the president “essentially rejected the deal that was on the table” as late as a week before the negotiations concluded, according to a White House official
“In my view, the Iranians swallowed hard when they stepped to that one,” Jim Walsh, an expert in international security, told LobeLog, “This would have been exactly the sort of issue to drive them up the wall. I’m sure that was a tough concession for them to make.” As for the outrage of critics in America, Walsh said, “The natural reaction is, ‘why should we allow them to buy missiles,’ not realizing the actual history here.”
In fact, the UNSC arms embargo pertains exclusively to the nuclear file. It falls squarely under the rubric of nuclear-related sanctions from which Iran is entitled relief as a result of its compliance. Two resolutions establish the statutory authority for this embargo. Resolution 1747, passed in 2007, bans Iran from exporting arms; resolution 1929, passed in 2010, bans the sale of conventional weapons to Iran, and separately, prohibits Iran from developing and testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The earlier resolution promised to provide Iran with relief as soon as it took action “to allow for negotiations in good faith,” which indeed happened in January 2014.
The later, more comprehensive resolution also provided for prompt relief. Chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman clarified this point, “if you read [resolution] 1929 carefully, it basically says that once Iran enters into a negotiated solution to show that its program is exclusively peaceful, one could read 1929 to mean that those sanctions should then come off.”
Concerns that Iran will use the dismantled embargo as an opportunity to contest the military might of Israel and the Gulf States overlooks a major imbalance in conventional military power. Iran fields a conventional arsenal of antiquated weapons. Most key equipment in its army, navy, and air force comes from low-grade sources in East Asia or from the Shah’s obsolescing stockpiles.
In contrast, neighboring governments have long pumped up their militaries with nearly limitless funding and top-dollar US equipment. Earlier this year, the US approved the sale of the some of the world’s most sophisticated munitions to its allies in the Middle East. Most of the contracts are valued at somewhere between several hundred million to several billion dollars. Stockpiling of this nature by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf countries has accelerated over recent years, abetted by the US military-industrial complex. In 2014, Saudi military spending has been four times that of Iran.
Rather than attempting to close the gap in conventional capability, Iran will stay on track with its preferred strategy of asymmetric warfare. It will continue to rely on allied states and non-state actors alike to do its bidding, offsetting the conventional advantages of adversaries at a low-cost and low need for technology. The ineffectiveness of “shock and awe” campaigns, used by the US in Iraq and foolishly replicated by the Saudis in Yemen, juxtaposed with Iran’s rise in influence in both countries highlights the advantages of its strategy.
Lastly, the embargo on Iran’s military shipments and ballistic missiles program hardly restricted the development of Iranian military power. By that same token, the end of that embargo will boost Iran’s overall military power only marginally.
Holes in the Embargo
Iran’s recent military history should make the weaknesses of the embargo clear. Iran violated the UN resolution that prohibited it from transferring weapons with regularity. Unilateral actions by Israel and the US formed the only effective checks on Iran’s behavior in this regard. Interdiction efforts revealed the extent to which Iran both violated the UN resolution and the level of force needed to stop Iran’s weapons transfers.
Second, Iran refined its ballistic missiles capability in spite of the embargo. Anthony Cordesman, a premier analyst of Iranian military affairs, refutes the idea that the lifting of the ballistic missiles embargo represents a meaningful security issue. He recently wrote: “It is far from clear that Iran will seek to buy entire missile systems from other countries eight years from the time the agreement goes into force.”
Iran’s calculus for making concessions on its nuclear program revolved almost entirely around the national economy. Military considerations occurred to Iranian negotiators almost as an afterthought, an addendum to the tradeoffs between numbers of centrifuges and amount of economic relief. Between an immediate end to the arms embargo and putting the whole deal in jeopardy, Iranian leaders probably didn’t think twice about accepting the tough US position when push came to shove.
On the US side, denying Iran relief from the sanctions designed to pressure it into making a deal contradicts the idea of a diplomatic settlement. The US would only discredit itself and international law by refusing to, as a member of the enforcing body, terminate sanctions that have fulfilled their purpose.