UN Restrictions on Iran’s Arms Trade Expire

UN Restrictions on Iran’s Arms Trade Expire

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described the expiration of UN restrictions on Iran’s conventional arms trade as “momentous,” but said Tehran will not go on a weapons “buying spree.”

The UN arms embargo ended Oct. 18 under the terms of Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and modified UN sanctions on Iran. The United States sought to prevent the expiration of the UN measures by snapping back Security Council sanctions on Iran using a provision in Resolution 2231 that cannot be blocked by veto. However, the Security Council rejected the U.S. attempt, as members argued that U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 means that Washington is longer a participant in the nuclear deal and therefore not entitled trigger snapback.

While the expiration of the arms embargo is a political victory for Iran and is one of the few remaining benefits Tehran is receiving for remaining party to the JCPOA, it is unclear how much Iran will benefit from this change. U.S. sanctions on Iran’s conventional arms trade were not lifted or modified by the JCPOA and the Trump administration has threatened to sanction any arms sales, which will likely deter some entities interested in buying Iranian arms or selling weapons to Tehran. 

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo continued to argue in an Oct. 18 statement that snapback was successful and that “virtually all UN sanctions on Iran returned” in September. He said that the United States is “prepared to use its domestic authorities to sanction” anyone that contributes to the sale or transfer of arms to and from Iran. The U.S. will also sanction any entities involved in financing arms trade with Iran and training on weapons systems, Pompeo said.

Russia stated its willingness to sell conventional arms to Iran once the embargo expired, but no specific sales have been announced yet. Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky tweeted Oct. 19 that Russia will continue doing business with Iran and that it is not up to the United States “to tell us or others what they can or can’t do.”

Zarif said in an Oct. 18 statement that Iran can procure “any necessary arms and equipment,” but will continue to rely on its “indigenous capacities and capabilities” for defensive purposes.

Iran’s Defense Minister, Brigadier General Amir Hatami said Oct. 18 that Iranian arms sales will far exceed purchases. He said that over the past year Iran has had discussions with several countries regarding arms sales and that Tehran will support efforts by states to defend themselves.—KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy, and JULIA MASTERSON, research assistant

IAEA Confirms Construction at Natanz

Iran has initiated construction on an underground advanced centrifuge assembly facility near Natanz in response to a July attack at that site. According to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi, “they have started [construction], but it’s not completed.”

The attack on Natanz targeted a building where advanced centrifuges were designed and assembled. Damage to that facility reportedly set Iran’s nuclear program back by months.

Tehran announced it would build a new replacement structure in the mountains near Natanz shortly after the explosion. That the IAEA was notified of the new facility and is monitoring construction suggests that Iran continues to abide by its monitoring and verification obligations. Iran is required under its safeguards agreements and the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to declare any centrifuge manufacturing facilities and allow monitoring of those sites.

In his interview with The Associated Press, which broke the story on the facility’s construction, Grossi also said that inspectors have now taken samples from both of the undeclared sites agreed to in an August resolution between Iran and the agency. According to Grossi, those samples are undergoing analysis in IAEA laboratories.

The IAEA’s investigation and request to access the undeclared facilities relates to past Iranian activities that took place before 2003 when the agency assessed that Iran had a nuclear weapons program.

U.S. Announces New Iran Sanctions

The Trump administration announced new sanctions targeting Iranian banks and designated several entities related to Iran’s oil sector for terrorism-related activities under Executive Order 13224.

The Oct. 26 oil sector designations target several entities already subject to sanctions for nuclear-related issues, including the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC). Sanctions on the NIOC and NITC were lifted under the JCPOA then reimposed when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018.

According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, “the regime in Iran uses the petroleum sector to fund the destabilizing activities of the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quod Force].”

The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to those familiar with the Trump administration’s approach, adding designations for these entities under anti-terrorism authorities is intended to make it more difficult for former Vice President Joe Biden to reverse and return the United States to the JCPOA if elected president.

Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the UN, noted Oct. 26 that the U.S. is sanctioning entities that have already been sanctioned and said that the “U.S. addiction to sanctions has not paid off.” The “U.S. hostility towards Iranian people has no limit,” he said.

The Trump administration also announced sanctions targeting 18 Iranian banks. In an Oct. 8 statement announcing the designations, Mnuchin said that sanctions would continue “until Iran stops its support of terrorist activities and ends its nuclear programs.”

Mnuchin said that humanitarian activities exempt from U.S. sanctions would not be impacted by the move. However, European countries reportedly opposed the U.S. decision out of concern that cutting off additional Iranian banks would make it more difficult for Tehran to facilitate payments for exempt humanitarian goods and services.

Iran to Upgrade Nuclear Power Generation Capacity

Iran’s energy minister Reza Ardakanian reiterated Oct. 5 that Iran will ramp up its nuclear power generation capacity to 3 gigawatts (GW) at the Bushehr nuclear power plant. He noted that the two new 1GW units are under construction by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and Russia’s Rosatom energy firm, but that financial issues have slowed progress. Construction began in 2017, and the two new units are scheduled to come online in 2027.

Continued progress on the two new units at Bushehr is significant in that it demonstrates Tehran’s commitment to press forward with building the reactors despite the revocation of U.S. sanctions waivers allowing cooperative work to expand Bushehr.

Under the JCPOA, expansion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant was supported by a nonbinding French, German, Russian, Chinese, UK, and U.S. commitment to engage in joint cooperative projects with Iran in the field of peaceful nuclear technology.

The Trump administration first issued 180-day waivers for these nonproliferation cooperation projects to continue without sanctions penalty in Nov. 2018, following U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the deal. In May 2019, the administration announced a renewal of certain sanctions waivers but noted that “assistance to expand Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant beyond the existing reactor could be sanctionable.” Today, only one sanctions waiver remains and it is applied to support operations at the existing, operational unit of the Bushehr plant.

According to Tehran, electricity generated by the new and existing units at Bushehr will be used to power the southern region of Iran.

Trump and Biden on the JCPOA

Prospects for renewed diplomacy between the United States and Iran, and the future of the nuclear deal, depend in large part on the outcome of next month’s U.S. presidential election.

While the incumbent President Donald Trump has vowed to strike a new deal with Iran within four weeks of his reelection, Democratic nominee Joe Biden plans to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), pending Iran’s return to compliance with its obligations under the multilateral accord.

Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 after asserting that “the Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” and noting that the deal failed to address the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile program, among other things. The Trump administration has also criticized the deal’s sunset provisions—including the UN arms embargo on Iran imposed under the JCPOA, which expired Oct. 18.

The administration has systematically ramped up its maximum pressure campaign by imposing crippling economic sanctions on Iran, claiming the approach will push Tehran back to the negotiating table. Thus far, the pressure campaign has adversely affected Iran’s economy and driven the country to take a series of steps to violate the JCPOA in response.

More recently, the Trump administration is reportedly pursuing a sanctions strategy designed to make it more difficult for any future president to return to the JCPOA.

It is unclear how the Trump administration would pursue diplomacy with Iran in a second term. Trump has not offered details on how he intends to achieve a new deal within four weeks, or whether it will include the 12 criteria that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo insists that Iran meet as part of a new agreement. These criteria include non-nuclear areas of U.S. concern, such as ballistic missiles and regional activities. Iran has also opposed negotiations with the United States, unless Washington first returns to the JCPOA. 

If elected, a future President Biden has stated his intent to “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” and has pledged to re-enter the JCPOA alongside Iran’s return to compliance. He laid out this strategy in a Sept. 13 CNN op-ed.

Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, outlined the team’s understanding of the significance that U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA posed for U.S. credibility during the Oct. 7 vice presidential debate and the need to repair that damage. “The thing that has always been a part of the strength of our nation in addition to our great military has been that we keep our word,” she said.

In addition to re-entering the deal, Biden says he intends to strengthen and build on the agreement by working closely with U.S. allies to pursue negotiations on a host of issues of concern, including Iran’s nuclear program over the long-term, detention of political prisoners, and destabilizing activities in the region. Biden made clear in the op-ed that “targeted sanctions against Iran’s human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and [its] ballistic missile program” will remain in place in the meantime.

The possibility of a U.S. and Iranian return to compliance with the JCPOA under either a Biden presidency or a second Trump term will depend on Tehran’s position. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said Sept. 21 that Washington must return to the deal “without condition” before future negotiations.

Zarif stressed that “the United States must first come clean, must get its act together, must come back to be a lawful member of the international community, start implementing its obligations, and then talk about the rest of the deal.”

As of now, the crux of the issue appears to center around sequencing, and whether a future Biden administration will concede to re-entering the JCPOA before an Iranian return to “strict compliance” with the deal.

According to Biden, “if Iran chooses confrontation, I am prepared to defend our vital interests and our troops. But, I am ready to walk the path of diplomacy if Iran takes steps to show it is ready too.”

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