Iran’s Position on the Arms Trade Treaty

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by Emma Scott

The “axis of evil” club portrayed by George W. Bush in 2002 no longer exists. Iran has now famously exited from the group leaving bad boy Kim Jong Un all alone. But the two countries still share something in common. In March 2013, North Korea and Iran, both of whom are under UN arms embargoes, alongside Syria, blocked adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) during the treaty drafting conference.

For supporters of the text, this move did not spell failure for the conference, which aimed for a treaty by consensus. Rather, it merely deferred adoption of the treaty regulating the commerce of arms. Those in favor of the draft asked UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to force the treaty by bringing it to a vote for adoption before the General Assembly. Iran, North Korea, and Syria were the only three countries to vote “no.” Given its new opening on the world stage and its desire to be viewed as a responsible player, Iran should now find this opposition rather embarrassing.

Yet, again last month, at the UN General Assembly First Committee, which deals with questions of disarmament and international security, Iran expressed disappointment with the treaty (although, its statement was not published).

Iran’s Rationale

Admittedly, 23 states had abstained during the 2013 vote, including many of Iran’s regional neighbors. But the vast majority of states, 154, voted in favor of the text including Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Jordon, Lebanon, and Iraq. Iran’s UN ambassador at that time, Mohammad Khazaee, explained that Iran voted “no” because the treaty failed to ban the transfer of conventional arms to “aggressors” and “foreign occupiers.” He asked: “How can we reduce human suffering by turning a blind eye to aggression that may cost the lives of thousands of innocent people? Are we rewarding aggressors by not prohibiting the transfer of arms to them?” Khazaee was speaking about the transfer of arms for the purposes of foreign occupation or to sustain military bases abroad, and was specifically referring to the US invasion of Iraq.

As a result of a conventional arms embargo imposed in 2010, Iran has seen an official cut-off of transfers of conventional weapons. Even prior to that, however, because of the country’s growing international isolation over the nuclear dossier, major weapons exporters were reluctant to engage in arms deals with Iran. US weapons exporters, in particular, steered clear of Iran because of the high penalties involved. According to Tyler Cullis, legal fellow at the National Iranian American Council, there are a couple dozen cases against Iranian-linked individuals for violating US export-control laws. But these cases, he said, primarily concern dual-use technology more than the export of large-scale conventional arms.

Iran has not been recorded in the UN Register on Conventional Arms since 2003 and has not actually filed a report with that register since 1998. According to Anthony Cordesman at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Iran for the most part remains reliant on out-dated equipment and technologies. Therefore, from the perspective of legally importing arms, Iran has no reason to oppose the ATT. On the contrary, in view of the lifting of the ban on conventional arms sales to Iran under the terms of the recent nuclear deal, and as argued by Allison Pytlak, a policy specialist at Control Arms, in comments by e-mail, “by joining the ATT, Iran would take a step in bringing itself back into the international community, and help to restore trust and confidence.” The ban on conventional arms is due to be in place for another five years but will weaken gradually over that period. On the blog of Control Arms, a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals campaigning for a “bulletproof” ATT, Pytlak wrote “that the gains made by successfully bringing Iran’s nuclear programme under IAEA control could have the paradoxical effect of opening the floodgates to conventional arms.” In view of this, if Iran wants to be considered as a responsible player, particularly toward its neighbors, it should for starters, review its position on the ATT.

Iran’s Record

The object of the ATT, in addition to making the legal trade in arms more transparent, is to prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms. Here Iran holds a somewhat questionable record. The expanding arms embargo since 2006 meant that Iran was unable to openly procure what it needed. Therefore, it, came to rely heavily on illicit methods. In this regard, for as long as Iran remains under a UN Security Council (UNSC) arms embargo, the ATT would restrain Iran because it aims to support and complement other states’ adherence to those embargos.

But the lifting of the ban gives Iran a way out of this illicit procurement trap because it may thereafter be able to acquire conventional weapons through legitimate means and legal methods. Hence, the ATT can also serve Iran because signatories have the right to request legislative assistance, such as model legislation, or institutional capacity-building assistance to set up effective practices. Legislation is in place covering procurement for Iran’s armed forces. But there is no evidence that the legislation is actively implemented and in any case, the legislation is weak and needs to be strengthened. So, by playing its cards carefully, Iran can actually accrue benefits from acceding to the ATT despite the additional requirements the treaty places on signatories.

In terms of exports, Iran does sell rockets as well as small arms and light weapons, which are all conventional arms covered by the ATT. There is, however, no parliamentary oversight of its arms export decisions, which leaves Iran wide open to accusations of smuggling that contravene the ATT. Furthermore, the ATT links the prevention of illicit trade in conventional arms to the prevention of acts of terrorism. Indeed, one of the justifications for the ATT, according to Elli Kytömäki from Chatham House, was the need for stronger measures to fight terrorism.

This creates a paradox for Iran to the extent that its exports of small arms and light weapons go to sub-state and non-state actors often designated as terrorist groups by the US and the EU. Iranian supplies to Hezbollah and other groups, Pytlak notes, would likely be of “concern” to other states party to the ATT, and “this would also factor into the risk assessment that exporting State Parties would undertake.” Theoretically, Iran would need to abandon its support for these groups—an unlikely scenario—in order to fall into line with the ATT.

That is not to say that Iran could not recommence submitting reports to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, which has also come to include small arms and light weapons. Such an approach could require Iran to fall in line with the register’s comprehensive reporting standards in a similar format to the road map agreed with the IAEA. To do this, the Iranian government needs to strengthen internal controls over arms activities, and that involves getting the IRGC to fulfil its reporting requirements vis-à-vis the government.

Iran could also just sign the treaty instead of taking a largely rhetorical stand against it. It’s true that most Middle Eastern states have yet to sign, but Israel, Bahrain, and Lebanon are among the most recent signatories. Even Libya and Zimbabwe’s Mugabe regime have signed. Therefore, Iran can also sign.

Photo: Close-up of an RPG manufactured in Iran

Emma Scott is a former assessor and peer reviewer for Transparency International’s Defense and Security program. She has also written for the Jamestown Foundation. She previously worked as a defense and security analyst on the Middle East and North Africa region with Business Monitor International Research in London, and interned on Iran at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. She is also an alumnus of the EU-Middle East Forum of the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin. Emma has two research Masters and two post-graduate certificates in geopolitics, conflict, international relations, and similar topics from universities in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, and France.

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