Iran’s Illicit Arms Transfers Do Not Justify U.S. Snapback

A new report authored by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres details evidence of Iran’s likely violation of the arms-related and ballistic missile transfer-related provisions of Security Council resolution 2231 (2015). Resolution 2231 endorses and helps implement the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the United States withdrew from in May 2018, and modifies UN sanctions on Iran.

As the Trump Administration bids to strengthen its maximum pressure campaign against Iran, it will likely use the Secretary-General’s report as further justification for extending the resolution’s arms-related provisions. To do so, the United States may attempt to exercise a clause of the resolution to unilaterally reimpose all Security Council sanctions, including the arms embargo, onto Iran indefinitely. While the possible violations described in the report are concerning, they are not grounds for the United States to act alone to prevent the embargo’s expiration. Doing so without multilateral support could collapse the deal altogether and trigger a nuclear crisis that the region can ill afford.

The Secretary-General’s Findings

The Secretary-General’s biannual report on the implementation of Resolution 2231, which was released June 11, finds that several arms and arms-related material seized by the United States in international waters and examined by the Secretariat “may have been [emphasis added in original] transferred in a manner inconsistent with Resolution 2231.” Those items were seized in Nov. 2019 and in Feb. 2020 and were initially assessed by the United States to be “evidently of Iranian origin.”

While the Secretary-General’s language is not definitive, the transfer of arms to or from Iran poses a violation of resolution 2231, which prevents “the supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related material from Iran” unless approved by the Security Council for five years after the adoption of the nuclear deal, or until Oct. 2020, when the arms embargo is due to expire.

The report distinguishes between seized items that were of Iranian origin, items that had been delivered to Iran, items that had design characteristics similar to those produced by a commercial entity in Iran, and those that bore Farsi markings, presumably implying Iranian origin.

Noting the similarity between the cruise missiles (or parts thereof) that were seized by the United States and those used in a series of attacks on Saudi Arabia in 2019, the report concludes that both the cruise missiles used in the attacks and those seized by the United States were definitively of Iranian origin. Also, the Secretariat found that delta-wing uncrewed aerial vehicles (or parts thereof) used in attacks on Saudi Arabia were of Iranian origin.

While the Secretariat was able to conclude these items originated in Iran, the report did not explicitly say the transfers violated Resolution 2231. In some cases, it may be because the Secretariat was unable to determine whether components were transferred before or after Jan. 16, 2016, when the nuclear deal was implemented. Transfers before that date would constitute a violation of other UN restrictions, but not of resolution 2231. Strong but not conclusive evidence likely influenced Guterres’ decision to use non-definitive language in assessing the implementation of resolution 2231’s arms-related provisions.

In a letter to the Secretary-General cited in the report, Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, Majid Takht Ravanchi, attempted to twist the words of resolution 2231 to argue it “does not prohibit the transfer of arms from Iran.” Ravanchi posited “the temporary arrangements in paragraph 6 (b) of annex B to that resolution were set only to authorize, on a case-by-case basis, the supply, sale or transfer of arms or related material from Iran.” “It has not been the policy of Iran to export weapons in violation of relevant arms embargoes of the Security Council,” Ravanchi countered in his letter.

Ravanchi is correct in noting the resolution does not use binding language to prohibit the transfer of arms to or from Iran, but the resolution requires UN member states to prevent the transfer of arms excluding instances where authorization is sought and obtained and there is no evidence that any of the transfers under investigation by the Secretary-General were authorized.

In a February statement to the press, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, noted the U.S. assessment that both the Nov. 2019 and February 2020 interdictions were of cargo bound for the Houthis in Yemen. The Trump administration has cited these seizures and Iran’s relationship with the Houthis writ large as an impetus for extending the UN arms embargo.

The Secretary-General’s report further details a March 2020 incident during which Saudi Arabia alleged that “Iran-backed Houthi militia” fired two ballistic missiles at Saudi civilians in Jazan and Riyadh. Debris from the attack in Riyadh bore a similarity to the Houthis’ Borkan-3 missile. According to a letter to the Secretary-General from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom cited by the report, the Borkan-3 is an adaptation of the Borkan-2H, which has similar features to Iran’s Qiam-1 missile. Iran’s Qiam-1 is itself is an indigenous variant of the country’s Shahab-2 short-range ballistic missile. According to the Secretary-General’s report, “the Secretariat will continue its analysis of this issue.”

Resolution 2231 differentiates between nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and related components, which Iran cannot import or export for eight years, and missile systems that cannot carry nuclear warheads, which are otherwise limited by the conventional arms embargo for five years.

This is why, if verified, the supply of Iran’s Qiam-1 missile – which boasts a 700-kilometer range and a 750-kilometer payload – would constitute a ballistic missile-transfer in violation of resolution 2231.

The resolution also calls upon Iran to refrain from undertaking activity related to “ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” for eight years after the adoption of the nuclear deal, or until 2023. ‘Nuclear capable’ ballistic missiles are generally understood as those that meet or exceed the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), or missiles with a range above 300 kilometers and a payload above 500 kilograms, but there is no agreed-upon understanding of what constitutes “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

These nonbinding and unclear guidelines pose a challenge for the Secretariat’s assessment of Iran’s space program. The Secretary-General’s report references Iran’s Feb. 9 and April 22 space launches, which were condemned by the United States and others for incorporating technology that is “virtually identical” to that used in nuclear-capable missiles. But while it is true that certain technologies used in space launch vehicles can be repurposed for use in an inter-continental range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, SLVs and ICBMs are not the same. Resolution 2231 also does not prohibit Iran’s peaceful exploration of space nor the development of its space program.

Ravanchi reminded in a letter to the Secretary-General that the addition of the words “designed to be” in resolution 2231’s guidelines on ballistic missiles was “a deliberate modification following lengthy negotiations in order to exclude Iran’s defensive missile programme that is ‘designed’ to be exclusively capable of delivering conventional warheads.”

The Security Council discussed Iran’s space launches, particularly its launch April 22, which was orchestrated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but the Secretary-General’s report relays “there was no consensus among Council members on how that launch related to Resolution 2231.”

The Danger of Snapback

The Secretary-General’s report does not use language definitively finding Iran in violation of Resolution 2231, but the conclusion that arms and arms-related material “may have been transferred in a manner inconsistent with Resolution 2231” is significant. The report’s details suggest it is likely that Iran is transferring arms and missiles in violation of the resolution.

That Iran attempted to and likely succeeded in transferring arms to the Houthis and other non-state actors in the region while under the embargo unarguably contributes to regional instability, but the embargo was not implemented to stabilize the region, and extending the embargo indefinitely would likely not affect Iran’s attempts to subvert it.

The arms embargo was written into resolution 2231 as a result of a broader international effort to pressure Iran to negotiate on its nuclear program. The embargo (and its Oct. 2020 expiration) is, as a result, a nuclear-related sanction. The Trump administration has attempted to reframe the embargo’s purpose to serve U.S. interests and justify an increase in diplomatic pressure on Iran but, if anything, evidence that Iran is violating the embargo only exemplifies the embargo’s shortfalls.

The United States briefed the Security Council on its draft of a standalone resolution to renew the embargo June 24 and has signaled its willingness to unilaterally prevent the embargo’s expiration using the snapback provision of resolution 2231, if it otherwise fails to garner multilateral support. In a tweet about the draft resolution, Ravanchi noted the Security Council unanimously called for full implementation of the JCPOA and resolution 2231, in response to the U.S. proposal.

Before the circulation of the U.S. draft, the Security Council veto-wielding states—including Russia and China—made clear their intent to block the passage of a standalone resolution. All remaining members of the nuclear deal – France, Germany, Russia, China, Iran, the United Kingdom, and the European Union – have also contested the U.S. use of the snapback provision and reiterated their commitment to preserving the deal.

Efforts to amend the embargo’s expiration absent support from the deal’s remaining participants could result in the collapse of the JCPOA and, worse, a reinstatement of the Iranian nuclear crisis. Iran has stated it will withdraw from the nuclear deal and threatened to abrogate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if referred to the Security Council and faced with the re-imposition of UN sanctions. Under such circumstances, the likelihood of Tehran re-negotiating a deal with a future U.S. administration is less likely, and, in the absence of all restrictions, Iran’s nuclear program and malign activities in the region would be wholly unconstrained.

The United States has other diplomatic options to counter Iran’s regional activities and to stymie the illicit transfer of arms to non-state actors, including by helping states better implement and enforce Security Council resolutions that prohibit the transfer of arms to Yemen and groups like Hezbollah, returning to compliance with the nuclear deal, and supporting Iranian efforts to do the same. A return to the JCPOA could provide a platform for future dialogue on Iran’s activities in the region that the United States considers destabilizing, including its arms and missile transfers.

While extending the embargo seems a superficially appropriate solution to Iran’s possible violations outlined in the Secretary-General’s report, the costs of doing so greatly outweigh the benefits.