Extending Embargo of Arms Trade with Iran: American Attempts and International Obstacles

EPC | 20 Jul 2020

It has become clear that the most important controversy on the threshold of the US presidential elections concerns the issue of the extension of the embargo on arms trade with Iran. International sanctions provided for by the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) had imposed an embargo on arms trade with Iran. However, the nuclear deal (which is in turn an international document recognized by the UNSC) provides for the termination of the said embargo in October 2020. Thus, the issue of lifting the embargo has become the subject of disagreement between the US and its former partners in the nuclear deal.

US attempts to extend the embargo: dead ends

Amidst expectations that the summer of 2020 would be a theatre for attempts by the parties to untie this knot, as part of its latest efforts, the US has presented its draft resolution to extend the embargo on arms trade with Iran to members of the UNSC with a view to having it studied and discussed in detail, and with the aim of allowing the members to put forward their amendments to the draft resolution so that the US side would subsequently submit a finalized version thereof.

Upon review of the positions of officials in the US administration, US attempts could be sensed to include the issue of the extension of the embargo on arms trade with Iran in the issues that are not of interest to the US administration alone, considering that the US interest in those issues falls within the framework of countering the possibility that Iran would pose a threat to US allies in the European Union (EU) and the Middle East. In this context, the US Secretary of State Pompeo has indicated that Iran would be able to threaten the capitals of US allies such as Rome, Warsaw, New Delhi, and Riyadh. He underlined that the support by countries of the Middle East for the US viewpoint regarding the extension of the arms embargo indicates the existence of a common concern among those countries regarding the implications of the end of the embargo.

Interest in mobilizing international support has been behind the US insistence on extending the embargo. This process gained significant momentum with the report of the UN Secretary-General regarding the Iranian origin of the weapons used in the attack on ARAMCO. This was used by the US administration in mobilizing global public opinion against Iran. It has clearly been successful in winning over the European countries whose positions implied support for the relevant US approach during the UNSC meeting despite their criticism of the US administration. This could be considered as European support for setting limits to Iran’s access to weapons. However, this was accompanied by a US position based on US interests as a country. Pompeo indicated that ending the embargo would pose a serious threat to US troops located in the region. Based on this concern, many US official have underlined that the US, while willing to ensure that the extension of the embargo stems from an international position that takes into account the concern about the Iranian threat, underlines that it has the right to ensure the continuation of the embargo on arms trade with Iran despite the opposition by any country based on its own national security. The officials underlined that the US would do its utmost and activate all the alternative methods at its disposal to ensure the extension of the embargo on arms trade with the Tehran regime.

The positions of the other influential parties in the nuclear issue and the UNSC were incompatible with the US position and inconsistent in opposing that position. While the Russian position has been clear in rejecting the proposed US resolution, considering that Russia’s UN representative underlined that his country is totally against the extension of the embargo, followers were surprised at the Chinese position which also appeared decisive in rejecting the proposed US draft resolution despite Chinese precedents of remaining silent in similar situations. The clear Chinese position comes after a similar Chinese position during the meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Sources have indicated that Chinese opposition prevented four times the decision-making process with regard to the European Troika’s draft resolution condemning Iran’s activities before the resolution was eventually adopted. Analysts point to the features of an obvious change in China’s strategy with regard to the disagreement between Iran and the US, linking this development to the strategic cooperation project that the two countries seek to approve. Thus, Beijing would most likely use the veto card against any US resolution in the UNSC.

Despite their criticism of the US administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and their advocacy of the deal, the two European countries in the UNSC have shown a desire to extend the embargo on the arms trade with Iran, albeit under a different formula. The Europeans are likely to favour proposing a draft resolution that provides for a definite extension (between six months and three years) of the embargo on arms trade with Iran while seeking to gain the support of the two opposing sides for this resolution as a compromise solution to the crisis.

Does Washington have other methods to ensure the extension of the embargo?

Despite several US manoeuvres to demonstrate that the US has at its disposal other methods to ensure the extension of the arms embargo, a review of the positions indicates that the US can only try one of two approaches for an extension of the embargo:

1- Convincing members of the UNSC of issuing a resolution that includes the extension of the arms embargo on Iran based on the steps that could be considered a violation of Resolution 2231. Within this framework, the US could invoke the missile tests carried out by Iran (the latest of which being the launch of the Noor satellite by means of a ballistic missile) and the report by António Guterres which confirms that the missiles and equipment used in the attack on ARAMCO are of Iranian origin. Such a resolution would require the approval of the majority of UNSC members. It would also require that none of the UNSC permanent members veto the resolution. While the US can garner the majority of votes within the UNSC, it most probably cannot avoid the use of veto by Russia and China, which would make this path impossible.

2- The attempt to employ the potential of the nuclear deal, namely the implementation of the “dispute settlement mechanism”. Within this framework, US officials have underlined on more than one occasion that the US, as one of the signatories to the nuclear deal, or as one of the parties mentioned in Resolution 2231, has the right to trigger the dispute settlement mechanism (also known as “snapback”, which provides for referring the Iranian file to the UNSC and the reimposition of international sanctions within a series of mechanisms) for the reimposition of the sanctions. While the dispute settlement mechanism could enable the US to avoid being exposed to the threat of the Russian or Chinese vetoes (according to the mechanism, the decision to reimpose the international sanctions cannot be vetoed), it remains unlikely. Iran and its allies (Russia and China) are not alone in underlining that Washington does not have the right to activate the mechanism since it is not a party to the deal; the EU as well does not grant the US such a right, which would make this path impossible as well.

Consequently, it can be said that despite all the efforts made by the US to extend the embargo on arms trade with Iran, the traditional ways before the US to extend the embargo remain closed since they pass through the UNSC where Russia and China are likely to use the veto, or through the dispute settlement mechanism under the nuclear deal where the parties acknowledge that the US cannot invoke it after having withdrawn from the deal.

The European resolution in the IAEA: the boost that can shift the balance

While the existing equation, which has been ongoing for months, makes it difficult for the US administration to obtain a chance to extend the embargo through traditional methods, this does not at all mean that the US does not have any chance of finding a way out of the crisis that would ensure a partial, yet substantive, success for the US. In addition, some developments help the US administration achieve this end and create a favourable climate to come out with a solution that would ensure the extension of the embargo imposed on arms trade with Iran.

One the most important determinants that contribute to creating such a climate is the action taken by the European Troika parties to the deal to obtain a resolution by the IAEA Board of Governors condemning Iran for non-fulfilment of its obligations under the nuclear deal and the attempt to conceal nuclear activities in two clandestine locations.

The draft resolution, which followed a report submitted by the IAEA Director General, was adopted by majority vote in the Board of Governors despite opposition by China and Russia. This drove the Iranian side to condemn the resolution amidst demands by hardliners in the Iranian Parliament to finalize the resolution requiring the government to withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) (which can be described as Iranian manoeuvres to influence the feelings of Europeans and raise their concerns by threatening with a noticeable escalation to prevent them from taking further steps in their path which is described by Iranian experts as a path that reminds the Iranian side of the attempts by the IAEA in 2008 that were followed by consequent international sanctions).

The attempt by the European Troika (which was supported by the US), as an escalatory European step, is significant at two different levels:

1- The European Troika could have referred the Iranian violations to the countries participating in the nuclear deal, within the framework of the dispute settlement mechanism provided for in the text of the deal, considering that Iran has violated obligations that it had undertaken under that deal. However, the reluctance by the European Troika to adopt that approach (which the Troika had threatened to do when it had announced in January 2020 its decision to invoke the snapback mechanism before it subsequently backed away from the decision) indicates that the European Troika does not want to join the US game that seeks to reimpose the international sanctions as soon as possible without stumbling on the veto obstacle, but rather seeks to follow a longer road whose purpose may be to exert more pressure on the Iranian regime and its allies without a hasty provocation that would lead to Iran’s exit from the NPT.

2- The resort by the European Troika to the Board of Governors constitutes in itself an additional push to the US attempts to extend the arms embargo. The statement adopted by the IAEA could pave the way for the US project of extending the embargo imposed on Iran. It is a step that proves Iran’s violation of its obligations under the nuclear deal. This would enable the US or its European partners to implement the dispute settlement mechanism based on a document issued by an international organization that proves the violation by Iran of the obligations under the nuclear deal. A review of European positions indicates that the IAEA statement came about under UK insistence. Discussions in the IAEA corridors were characterized by silence on the part of Germany and France even as the UK Foreign Office underlined that Iran’s systematic and continuous violation of the nuclear deal exposes the deal to serious risks that would make it unviable, and warned Iran against the consequences.

Assuming that the European Troika does not want to activate the snapback mechanism amidst internal disagreements that would prevent unanimity among its members on this issue, the latest European step could give momentum to the US campaign, change the game balance through putting pressure on Iran’s allies, and force those allies to accept compromises. This vision corresponds with efforts made within the EU and through the EU representatives in the UNSC (France and the UK) to propose compromise solutions to the issue of extending the arms embargo, including a temporary extension of the embargo for a period that ranges between six months and three years.

Features of a US strategy to manage the issue

Upon review of the US efforts and the positions of US officials, it becomes clear that the US seeks to make the international community choose between one of the following two options: first, accepting the extension of the embargo on arms trade with Iran without the introduction of details regarding the reimposition of sanctions; and second, threatening with the restoration of the comprehensive international sanctions.

The US threat to restore international sanctions on Iran continues to be effective (while the adoption by the UNSC of a resolution in this respect is a weak likelihood, the US efforts may lead to the return of effective international sanctions, such as EU sanctions, Canadian sanctions, and sanctions by the industrialized countries, which would then create hard obstacles for the economies of China and Russia). However, the effectiveness of this US threat would be at the level of putting pressure on superpowers to accept concessions on the issue of the embargo extension).

In light of the above, reference could be made to the strategy of the US administration with regard to the issue of the extension of the embargo on arms trade with Iran based on the following topics:

1- The positions expressed by US officials during the past period, characterized by an intensification in the US campaign in favour of extending the embargo on Iran, indicate that the US administration continues to insist on the traditional ways of solving this issue, namely attempting to obtain a UNSC resolution that would ensure the extension of the arms embargo, or attempting to implement the dispute settlement mechanism within the nuclear deal, both ways face substantive obstacles.

2- Threats by the US administration to reimpose the international sanctions on Iran could be viewed within US efforts to develop those traditional positions or making them more applicable. While the US administration has not indicated its alternative methods that would enable it to impose such sanctions, the obvious intention of those warnings is to intimidate the partners in the nuclear deal and having them choose between giving in to the demand of embargo extension or risking the reimposition of the international sanctions on Iran (which are sanctions that, although limited, would affect the partners).

3- The US attempt to threaten with the reimposition of the international sanctions on Iran also come within the framework of garnering maximum benefits while offering minimum benefits to the other side. Within the framework of the benefits demanded by the other side, reference could be made to the linking by the spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs between Iran’s renouncement of its demands of acquiring modern weapons and the US presence in the region, while underlining that Iran will not give up its position on supporting its military structure as long as the US side insists on the military option and delays the withdrawal of its troops from the region. In this context, reference should be made to the analyses that underline China’s attempt to use the Iranian issue as a pressure card on the US administration within the framework of the crisis between the two countries.

The verbal escalation launched by the US on Iran within the issue of the embargo extension could partially be understood as an attempt to impose the maximum level of Washington’s demands while offering the other parties the minimum level of benefits.

On the other hand, the US position of rejecting the European methods of settlement that propose a temporary extension of the arms embargo (in this context, the US Secretary of State underlined that what the US seeks is an extension of the embargo on arms trade with Iran indefinitely) could be understood within the framework of the previous point, especially when the European disagreements are taken into consideration, ranging between a position that proposes an extension for six months (with the aim of winning more time for influential countries in the issue for negotiation) and another position that proposes an extension for three years. The US rejection could then be explained within the framework of favouring the positions demanding the extension of the embargo for longer periods. This analysis is supported by signs from within the US administration that also indicate a desire for a temporary but long-term extension of the embargo that would last till 2031.

In the meantime, the optimum solution for the US would remain the use of the UK card to activate the dispute settlement mechanism under the nuclear deal. This would be the optimum way for the US to reimpose the sanctions and/or use them to obtain a resolution from the UNSC on the extension of the embargo on the arms trade with Iran. What makes this the optimum approach (in addition to being an approach that enhances the US efforts and enables the US to avoid the Russian or Chinese veto obstacle in the UNSC) is that the UK position continues to be the closest position to the US administration. This is obvious from previous UK positions and also from the UK’s insistence that the European Troika propose a draft resolution by the IAEA condemning Iran.

However, despite all the above, developments do not indicate a US move in the direction of adopting this approach. This could be attributable to several possible reasons, including the unawareness by the US decision maker of this option, the unwillingness by the UK side to depart from the European position and strain relations with its German and French partners, or the desire of the US administration to offer a pivotal role to its Gulf allies in this effort through the UNSC, based on the report of the UN Secretary-General on the Iranian role in the ARAMCO attacks. This would also mean involving them in bearing the potential economic cost of convincing Russia and China of passing such a resolution in the UNSC.


Within the framework of US efforts to extend the embargo on the arms trade with Iran, the international obstacles that stand before those attempts, and the positions of the individual partners on this issue, reference could be made to the following scenarios:

First scenario: the issuance of a UNSC resolution extending the embargo according to the US viewpoint. This is the ideal scenario for the Americans. The US administration is doing its best to convince the various member countries in the UNSC, especially the countries with the right of veto, to pass the resolution. The Arab countries allied to Washington would bear the necessary economic costs to compensate Russia and China for the arms contracts signed with the Iranian side. This would close the door to Iranian aspirations with regard to modernizing the conventional arms systems. While the US administration seeks to use effective pressure cards in this effort, including threatening with the reimposition of international sanctions on Iran, based on their apparent positions as of now, Russia and China would use the right of veto against such a draft resolution, which would make this scenario implausible.

Second scenario: the US would be able to directly activate the dispute settlement mechanism. Some quarters in the US administration threaten that they can implement this scenario as well. This scenario remains implausible when it is recalled that the activation of the mechanism can only be done by partners in the nuclear deal, which would prevent the US from using it after having officially withdrawn from the deal, unless it rejoins the deal which also does not seem to be plausible. Within the framework of the same scenario, the US administration underlines that it can, in its capacity as a signatory to Resolution 2231, implement the mechanism. However, this faces legal obstacles which makes it almost closed to the US administration.

Third scenario: the US would benefit from its pressure cards in order to convince the different parties to accept compromises. While the US has threatened to reject those methods, this could be considered a step in the preparation to accept such mediations, the most important of which seems to come from the European Troika which proposes a temporary extension of the embargo between six months and three years. This scenario faces the obstacle of the possible Chinese and Russian opposition thereto. However, the other determinants could make this scenario a likely one, especially in view of the boost added by the IAEA resolution to the embargo extension campaign.

Fourth scenario: the UK side has driven towards the activation of the dispute settlement mechanism under the nuclear deal. This scenario seems plausible in light of the UK move in the direction of obtaining the IAEA resolution and also in light of the convergence between the UK and US positions. This scenario would completely destroy the nuclear deal and return the situation to how it had been prior to the nuclear deal in terms of the restoration of all international sanctions on Iran, including the sanctions imposed on arms trade. This situation would not be favoured by the European side that has concerns regarding the exit by Iran from the NPT and is being excluded within the framework of the game “who withdraws first” exercised by the Iranian and European sides with regard to the nuclear deal. Therefore, the US administration can also employ the UK option, not to implement it but rather to add an effective push that can be employed in the US campaign to extend the embargo through the UNSC. Such a manoeuvre can be critically effective in making the US campaign successful or in favouring compromise solutions.

Latest Featured Topics