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The UN Sanctions' Impact on Iran's Military

Issue Brief - Volume 1, Number 7, June 11, 2010

Note chart below on Russian and Chinese Equipment Subject to U.N. Sanctions

One of the most significant aspects of the latest round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran has received the least attention - the ban on major weapons deliveries. Yet the weapons embargo is likely to have the most consequential impact of all on Iran's national power and prestige by promising to significantly reduce Iran's military capability in the months and years ahead.

Some initial media coverage of the P-5 agreement to sanction Iran did not even mention the resolution's embargo on the transfers of heavy weapons, their spare parts, and related training and maintenance assistance.[1] The overall verdict of pundits and press commentators on the June 9 sanctions resolution has been largely negative, with most of the public discussion focused on efforts by Russia and China to "water down" provisions favored by the United States[2] and the ultimate absence of stringent measures to target Iran's energy sector.

Yet the Russians and Chinese, along with ten other members of the UN Security Council, voted to subject Iran, for the first time, to an embargo on creating and maintaining the most import sinews of military strength. UN Security Council Resolution 1929 directs all states to "...prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to Iran...of any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems... or related materiel" and "shall prevent the provision to Iran...of technical training, financial resources or services, advice, other services or assistance related to the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms and related materiel..."[3]

This prohibition affects not only the ballistic missiles, which are the presumed delivery vehicle for any future Iranian nuclear weapons, but also the submarines, aircraft and anti-ship missiles, which pose the most significant threats to the safe operation of shipping through the Persian Gulf. The embargo on tanks, artillery, and armored combat vehicles also affects directly the strike elements of any Iranian forces posing an invasion threat to Iran's neighbors.

History Lessons
History provides a dramatic illustration of the potential impact on Iran of a weapons embargo. During the reign of the Shah, Iran's military was largely equipped with U.S. and British weapon systems. With the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, this relationship came to an abrupt end and the Iranian military - including the second most powerful air force in the Middle East - began rapidly to atrophy. However, in those days, the Soviet Union and China were willing to step into the breach, essentially re-equipping the military forces of the Islamic Republic.[4]

After providing significant numbers of fighter aircraft, armor, artillery, and three modern diesel submarines, Russian transfers have tapered off in recent years. Russia was active through most of the past decade in selling air defense systems and in 1998 had licensed Iranian construction of 2,000 anti-tank missiles over a ten-year period. The last direct transfer of equipment from Russia to Iran was the 2006-2007 delivery of 750 SA-15 Gauntlet short-medium range surface-air missiles and 29 more advanced SA-15s (Tor-M1s). Russia's 2007 deal to supply the sophisticated and longer-range S-300 air defense system has not been carried out. Although exclusion of this system from mandatory sanctions has been described by critics of Resolution 1929 as a "loophole," that resolution also "calls upon all States to exercise vigilance and restraint over ...all other arms" as well.[5] There are strong indications that, accordingly, Moscow's freeze on the S-300 transaction will continue.[6]

China was also an important supplier of tanks and artillery to Iran during the 8-year Iraq-Iran War and, in the last two decades, has been the source of ten missile-firing fast attack boats and 565 C801/802 anti-ship cruise missiles, which the U.S. Department of Defense describes as "an important layer in Iran's defense of or denial of access to the (Persian) Gulf and Strait of Hormuz."[7] Indeed, Iran's potential to interfere with crucial oil shipments through the Persian Gulf is of more acute concern to the international community today than any threat of an Iranian invasion.

Iran needs Russian and Chinese Military Assistance
Today, Tehran remains principally dependent on Russia and China for manufacturing and maintaining the most sophisticated core of Iran's arsenal for offensive military operations. It is all the more significant then, that in the latest round of negotiations on UN Security Council sanctions, Russia and China agreed to a total cutoff of these  weapons for Iran - including spare parts and technical training.

Iran has been creative and energetic in mitigating the impact of past supply chain cut-offs on its front line weapons systems through black market acquisitions and shifting to the use of asymmetrical tactics. With its oil wealth, it can offer large incentives for countries and individuals to circumvent sanctions. Therefore, it will not only be important for states to abide by the arms embargo, but to also use the resolution's own enforcement mechanisms to inspect and seize shipments suspected to be in violation of the embargo.

UN blockage of Iran's traditional sources of weapons will be politically and economically costly for Tehran. Finding a substitute for its principal suppliers will not be easy. It will be forced to adopt compensatory measures requiring more time and more money, and probably to less effect. To be rebuffed in this way by the two countries on which Iran has relied for protection on the UN Security Council is a political as well as a military blow to the regime, raising domestic questions about the government's competence in managing foreign affairs.

Wider Impact
Two of the world's most pressing proliferation challenges, Iran and North Korea, are now subjected to nearly comprehensive arms embargoes and a variety of other restrictions in response to their behavior. These actions by the UN Security Council help to send a message to potential future proliferators that they can expect a similar response, and would need to weigh a risky nuclear weapons program with the degradation of their overall military capabilities. - GREG THIELMANN, with MATTHEW SUGRUE

1 See, for example: David E. Sanger and Mark Landler, "Major Powers Have Deal on Sanctions for Iran," New York Times, May 18, 2010.
2 See, for example: Christopher R. Wall, "Weak Tea; The U.N. sanctions against Iran have been watered down to almost nothing." June 8, 2010
3 UN Security Council Resolution 1929 (S/2010/283), paragraph 8
4 North Korea also played a role in providing ballistic missile help during the last two decades, but Iran's indigenous ballistic missile technology is now generally superior to what North Korea has to offer.
5 UNSC 1929, paragraph 8
6 See, for example: Anna Malpas, "Russia moves to scrap Iran missile sale," AFP, June 11, 2010
7 "Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran," Department of Defense, April 2010

Selected Russian and Chinese Equipment Subject to U.N. Sanctions (June 2010)[i]

Russia Russia flag

Designation

Description

Amount[ii]

Year(s) Delivered[iii]

Navy

Type-877E/Kilo

Submarine

3

1992-1993; 1996

Aircraft

MiG-29/Fulcrum-A

Fighter Aircraft

~34

1990; 1991

Su-24MK/Fencer-D

Bomber Aircraft

~12

1991

Mi-8/Mi-17/Hip-H

Helicopter

~47

2000; 2000-2001; 2002-2003

Su-25/Frogfoot-A

Ground Attack Aircraft

6

2006

Ground Forces

BMP-1

Infantry Fighting Vehicle

~400

1986-1989

BMP-2

Infantry Fighting Vehicle

~413

1993-2001

T-72M1

Tank

~422

1993-2001

D-30 122mm

Towed Gun

~100

1998-2002

BTR-60PB

Armored Personnel Carrier

~200

1986-1987

Missiles

R-27/AA-10 Alamo

Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile

~150

1990-1991

China Russia flag

Designation

Description

Amount

Year(s) Delivered

Navy

Hudong

Fast Attack Craft (Missile)

10

1994-1996

Aircraft

F-6

Fighter Aircraft

~16

1982-1984

F-7A

Fighter Aircraft

~5

1986

F-7M Airguard

Fighter Aircraft

30

1993; 1996

Ground Forces

Type-59-1 130mm

Towed Gun

~626

1982-1984; 1985-1986; 1987; 1992

Type-63 107mm

Multiple Rocket Launcher

~550

1981-1987; 1986-1990

WZ-120/Type-59

Tank

~300

1982-1984

D-74 122mm

Towed Gun

~100

1985-1986

HY-2 CDS

Coastal Defense System

~7

1986-1987

WZ-121/Type-69

Tank

~500

1986-1988

WA-021/Type-88 155mm

Towed Gun

~15

1991

CSS-8 TEL

Surface-to-Surface Missile Launcher

~30

1990-1994

WZ-501/Type-86

Infantry Fighting Vehicle

~90

2001-2009

Missiles

C-801/CSS-N-4/Sardine

Anti-ship Missile

~245

1987; 1995-1998; 2006-2009

HY-2/SY-1A/CSS-N-2

Anti-ship Missile

~150

1986-1987; 1988-1994

M-7/CSS-8

Surface-to-Surface Missile

~200

1990-1994

C-802/CSS-N-8

Anti-ship Missile

~320

1994-2009

Fl-6

Anti-ship Missile

~205

1999-2009

TL-6/C-704

Anti-ship Missile

~10

2005


i System designations, types, amounts and years derived from SIPRI arms transfer database, http://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/page/trade_register.php.

ii Amount represents the total number of systems delivered from 1980-2009. Figures preceded by a “~” are estimates.

iii Years separated by semi-colon indicate separate transaction periods.

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