One of the big objections by Israel and the GOP hawks to the Iran deal is that release of sanctions enables Iran to purchase advanced weapons that the sanctions have prevented for 30 years. And with the release of Iran’s $100 billion in blocked funds, it will have big bucks to spend on them. Robert Farley reports that both Russia and China have been looking forward to this moment. Some say they pushed hard for the nuclear deal, since they had much to gain in the form of weapons sales.
The fact that Russia and China didn’t break the sanctions regime a long time ago should be considered almost a miracle, but Farley thinks that despite their interest in tweaking the US, neither favors a nuclear Iran. In the past, Iran acquired weapons from both Russia and China, as well as from the US. We can expect them to look to Russia and China, since Iran is a tempting buyer in the emerging arms export competition between Moscow and Beijing.
But, Matthew Weybrecht at the Lawfare blog thinks that most arms sales to Iran could still be a few years in the future. He reports that, according to the Implementation Plan (Annex V), sanctions relief will begin upon IAEA-verified implementation of (specified) nuclear-related measures. It is not entirely clear when “IAEA-verified implementation” will begin, but Weybrecht thinks it will probably be sometime in early 2016.
Why? Because a copy of the proposed UN Security Council Resolution (UNSC) has been leaked to the press. The Resolution terminates the previous Iran sanctions, but also immediately imposes a new regime that retains certain arms restrictions, including continuing the arms and ballistic missile embargoes for five and eight years, respectively.
These new (really continuing) restrictions came in a separate “statement” (which the UNSC requires all states to comply with) and actually takes the form of permitting specific purchases, but only with the advance, affirmative permission of the UNSC.
In effect, this amounts to an embargo from which the UNSC can grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis, and the US can use its veto to block transfers it does not like. The Obama administration gets to claim that the arms embargo will stay in effect for years after Implementation, and that it can veto any Iranian purchases it worries could destabilize the region.
It is now possible to see a little into the future: Iran gets its $100 billion back, but they will have trouble getting approval to purchase advanced weapons like cruise missiles, which would be deeply worrying to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Gulf States. And the international restrictions probably mean that neither China nor Russia will want to take the risk of exporting them to Iran.
Iran has a relatively impressive air defense network, but it will require an infusion of new technology to provide real protection from Israel or US air attack. Approval from the UN for new air defense weapons may prove impossible to get in the near term.
Farley indicates that Iran has other needs, including modern ground combat vehicles, modern small naval vessels, and a host of support equipment. Those probably would be approved by the UN.
Iran would probably be permitted to purchase low-end aircraft from either China or Russia. Planes from either country would represent an improvement over current Iranian capabilities. In the longer term, depending on how well the nuclear deal holds together, Iran could purchase aircraft on par with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
So, who won the negotiation?
The US and the rest of the P5+1 get to retain the most important military restrictions for at least a few more years.
Iran gets significant economic relief from the sanctions and gets to claim it got all the sanctions immediately eliminated.
Yet, it bears noting that if China and Russia didn’t break the arms embargo before, there is little reason to think they will do that going forward. And if they did, would they continue down that path after the UN Security Council said “no” to a specific arms deal?
But, Iran with access to modern military weapons could pose a greater threat to the region than an Iran with a few crude nuclear devices it could never use. That potential risk, along with the nuclear risk, is now postponed for a few years in the future.
This is the agreement we’ve got. Implementation will be challenging, even if all parties are acting in good faith, not just because its constraints are complicated, but because irreconcilable parties in Iran and the US, including most Republicans, favor its demise.