Analysis

Iran Arms Embargo: The Quiet Battle of Superpowers Could Shake the UN

Trump administration resolution, to be submitted next week, for a UN security council vote to extend embargo despite lack of support may snowball into a clash that rattles international body’s existing order and benefits Israel

Noa Landau
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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a news conference, June 24, 2020.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a news conference, June 24, 2020.Credit: Mangel Ngan/Pool via REUTERS
Noa Landau

On October 18, 2020, the Iranian regime may achieve a historic triumph: With the possible elimination of the weapons embargo, Tehran could be able to buy conventional weapons, new warplanes and the most advanced aerial defense systems. If the United States’ efforts to prevent this fail, or lead to a direct confrontation between the powers on the UN Security Council, it seems most Israelis will not understand how and why it happened.

As opposed to a certain public debate on the issue at the moment in the U.S., this time the Israelis are maintaining maximum silence and letting the Americans do the work. But behind the scenes, officials describe the matter as a supreme diplomatic mission.

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The present embargo on selling conventional weapons to Iran is based on UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was approved in the wake of the Iranian nuclear agreement and reorganized all related resolutions, including the arms embargo, which is supposed to expire automatically in October. The sale of missile components, Israel’s main concern these days, will not be allowed, even when the embargo expires. But its expiration could serve as a tailwind for other allowances. At the same time, the battle over the arms embargo could lead, in an extreme scenario, to the collapse of the remainder of the nuclear agreement, too.

The Trump administration, which withdrew from the agreement, now demands that the Security Council extend the embargo. Russia and China have veto power and vehemently oppose it, and Russia could also be the first to sell weapons to Iran and supply it with the potential photo op of a first deal being inked.

The European Union would prefer a compromise between the parties, so as of now the U.S. has no chance of getting a majority in the Security Council. Nonetheless, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Wednesday that his country would not accept attempts to compromise and would put the proposal for extending the arms embargo to a vote in the Security Council next week. This officially opened the way for a full frontal confrontation between the powers.

Parallel to this track, the U.S. is threatening a legally and internationally controversial step – according to which although it withdrew from the agreement, it can implement the so-called snapback provision. According to this clause, any of the parties to the agreement can automatically reimplement the validity of the sanctions earlier imposed on Iran. In such a case, the UN would be forced to decide on the validity of the U.S. interpretation of the issues, which could also lead to Russia and China ignoring the U.S. decision – undermining the organization’s existing order. In addition to all this, Iran is also threatening to cancel the remnants of the agreement and cooperation if the embargo is extended.

Because the possibility of the snapback has been placed on the table, there are those in Israel who hope that the extension of the arms embargo fails in the Security Council, allowing the controversial provision to be implemented and finally eradicating the remnants of the nuclear agreement. The U.S. presidential election could also contribute to this, say Israeli officials, on the assumption that Trump will try to prevent at any cost the image of an Iranian victory before Election Day.

But the approaching U.S. election has sharpened the growing problem for Israel concerning Iran. Israel’s complete dependence on the Trump administration, which has placed itself in conflict with the rest of the international community and in opposition to any attempt for compromise, could also isolate Israel in this campaign, and leave it, to certain extent, all alone if Trump loses the election.

The Israeli desire to undermine the existing international order, because chaos would serve it, would be an appropriate topic for a deeper public debate, which almost does not exist at the moment. Either way, in less than three months, Israel will be forced to deal with either a more heavily armed Iran, or with an angrier Iran – in a world where everyone is threatening to immediately throw out all the rules.

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