A new battle is brewing over Iran.
Last month, the Trump administration formally appealed to the United Nations to extend the international arms embargo on Iran, which is set to expire in mid-October. That ban, contained in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, is designed to prevent Iran from acquiring new deliveries of sophisticated conventional weaponry. The Administration had worked diligently in recent months to build international support for such a step, and managed to garner some support (including from the Gulf Cooperation Council). But the measure met with strong opposition at the UN, most notably from Russia and China, and ultimately failed to pass.
In the wake of the diplomatic defeat, the United States has invoked the "snapback" provision of Resolution 2231, which calls for the restoration of all UN sanctions on Iran that were waived as a result of the 2015 nuclear deal known as the JCPOA. That step has touched off a pitched legal debate. The other parties to the agreement (Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany) have all challenged America's right to call for "snapback," since the Trump administration formally decided in May 2018 to pull out of the JCPOA. Yet, as experts have convincingly argued, the actual language of the UNSCR 2231 still gives the United States the authority to invoke the agreement's provisions. The policy debate now revolves around whether the United Nations will eventually act – and what Washington might do unilaterally if it doesn't.
Lost amid that discussion, however, is a proper explanation of why the U.S. effort failed in the first place.
To be sure, at least some of the resistance can be chalked up to opposition to the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" policy, which has already cost Iran's main trading partners dearly. Over the past two years, European companies have been progressively driven out of Iran over fears of crippling American sanctions, while major EU initiatives involving the Islamic Republic have been put at risk. In all, European experts estimate that the Continent has so far lost nearly $50 billion in commercial trade with Iran as a result of U.S. sanctions. This, in turn, has bred no shortage of resistance from countries that are eager to reengage Tehran, and resentful of American pressure preventing them from doing so.
Yet the more significant drivers of the impasse are undoubtedly Russia and China, both of whom serve as key strategic partners of Iran – and who are poised to reap the benefits if the arms embargo does end up expiring. "Iran remains reliant on countries such as Russia and China for procurement of advanced conventional capabilities," a recent assessment by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency outlines. The same study notes that the Islamic Republic is eager to "purchase new advanced weapon systems from foreign suppliers to modernize its armed forces, including equipment it has largely been unable to acquire for decades." For Moscow and Beijing, then, blocking the extension of the UN arms embargo amounts to shrewd business.
This intransigence is likely to come at a high cost for the region, however.
Here, it's worth remembering that, a dozen years ago, mounting regional fears of Iran's expanding nuclear program ignited a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East and North Africa. At its high-water mark in 2008, the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies noted at the time, no fewer than thirteen separate countries had begun making serious movements toward a nuclear capability of their own. While at least some of those nations were driven by other motivations, others – like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE – were clearly looking for strategic counterweights to Iran's growing nuclear capability.
Much the same dynamic could play out in the near future. A failure by the international community to continue to limit Iran's access to advanced weaponry could touch off a scramble among nervous regional states to acquire those same systems in response.
That, in fact, appears to be precisely what Moscow and Beijing are banking on. Russia and China are already major weapons exporters in their own right, and over the past half-decade have accounted for 21% and 5.5% of all global arms sales respectively, according to statistics compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Institute. But now, both countries are actively working to expanding their presence – and their military sales – in the Middle East and North Africa. The inevitable spike in regional demand for Russian and Chinese arms that would follow the expiration of the UN arms embargo would solidify their gains still further.
As such, the debate over the UN arms embargo – and the larger discussion over whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran – isn't simply a procedural matter. It's also a vote over whether Iran will be allowed to rearm, and whether its nervous neighbors will feel compelled to follow suit. Both Moscow and Beijing, at least, are hoping that all of them do.