Iran’s weapons embargo ends – what next?

By Maxwell Fuller, BSc Economics and Politics Student at University of Bristol

The 13-year United Nations (UN) arms embargo on Iran was lifted in October 2020, allowing the country to import weaponry and new military hardware, crucial to the modernisation of their outdated military. The termination of the 2007 restrictions came as the United States failed to extend the provisions in a UN vote that August. However, economic and political circumstances make it unlikely that Iran will go on an arms spending spree.

Since 2007, the UN has imposed a series of arms embargoes on Iran in reaction to the development of the country's nuclear programme [1]. Under the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, formally known as the JCPOA, these sanctions were set to expire in October of this year. In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the deal, saying that Iran had breached its terms and that the original deal was not comprehensive enough [2].

In August, the US tried to extend the arms embargo indefinitely at the UN. Their efforts failed as the E3 – United Kingdom, Germany, and France - abstained on the vote, claiming the US had no legal means to impose sanctions under an agreement that they are no longer a signatory to [3]. The E3 has hopes of keeping the JCPOA alive and have their own non-UN embargoes that will continue until 2023.

Iran could potentially use this opportunity to update its antiquated military equipment, much of which was bought from the US and UK in the 1970s. Since then, resources have been put towards developing a domestic arms industry, however, the country has struggled. Their airforce is in particularly bad state with at least 20 reported crashes due to technical failures occurring since 2003 [4]. Still, the domestic Iranian defence industry has allowed the country to pose a military threat in the region despite smuggled parts being its only military import in the past years.

A US Department of Defence report predicted, the end of the embargo would likely result in Tehran "purchasing advanced fourth-generation fighters, most likely from Russia", alleging that arms talks between the countries had started in anticipation of October's expiration [5]. This would be a further extension of military cooperation between the two countries after Russia's 2015 intervention into the civil war in Syria put the two on the same side of the conflict.

A second potential arms trading partner is China. Sino-Iranian relations have been intensifying since President Xi visited the Republic in 2016. US sanctions on Iran have crippled its economy and Iran see a pivot to China as a way of offsetting their effect. Both countries also have a common adversary in the US. A document leaked to the New York Times in July detailed plans for a deepening of military relations with joint weapons development and training exercises [6].

This potential spending spree is not guaranteed. Firstly, Iran does not have much money to spend. The effects of the United States' 'maximum pressure' campaign was compounded when COVID-19 hit the country, forcing Tehran to go to the International Monetary Fund and request a $5 billion loan [7]. Modern weaponry is expensive, and the country may instead find more value in investing in their domestic defence industry. Potential trading partners may also be worried about secondary sanctions after the US announced they would impose measures on any entity that transacts with Iranian banks [8].

Political realities may also make Russia and China wary of entering an extensive arms trade arrangement with Iran. Both countries have profited from relations with Iran’s wealthy adversaries in the Gulf, all of whom expressed their desire for the elapsed embargo to be extended [9]. Russia have reportedly reached a $3bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia [10] and are backing General Haftar alongside the UAE in the ongoing Libyan civil war. It has even been reported that Russia have already rejected an Iranian request to purchase a high tech S-400 air defence system [11]. China is getting increasingly close to Riyadh, profiting from Western arms embargoes in response to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen that have sent the Saudis shopping elsewhere for arms [12].

Ultimately, political and economic realities make it unlikely that Iran will spend considerable amounts of money on arms imports, despite US outcry about the dangers of the expiration of the embargo. Iran may try to import the kind of weapons that they have not been able to produce domestically, especially to aid their army of proxies that extend Tehran’s influence across the region; however, this is expected be limited.

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