FPI Bulletin: Iran, Russia Pursue Illicit Arms Sales

March 10, 2016

Tehran’s plan to purchase Sukhoi-30 (Su-30) fighter jets and other military hardware from Moscow marks the latest Iranian attempt to evade a U.N. arms embargo in the wake of the July 2015 nuclear agreement. The proposed sale reflects not only the Islamist regime’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, but also its confidence that it can flout its international obligations with impunity. The United States should demonstrate otherwise by vetoing the sale at the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and exacting meaningful costs for Iranian misbehavior.

Capabilities of the Su-30 Fighter

Iran’s acquisition of the Su-30 would dramatically strengthen its antiquated air force, which currently lacks the capability to prevail in virtually any conventional conflict. As Farzin Nadimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes, the new fighters “could significantly improve Iran’s air defense, aerial intercept, and multirole long-range strike capability up to 5,000 km with aerial refueling.” Tehran also reportedly seeks to buy advanced jet trainer and light attack aircraft, transport helicopters, mobile coastal defense missile systems, frigates and diesel-electric submarines. The final deal may total as much as $8 billion.

According to Stephen Bryen, a former senior official at the Department of Defense, the deal will enable Iran to dominate its Persian Gulf rivals, and offers the regime “an answer to Israel’s air power.” An analogue to the latest versions of the F-15 and the F-18, Russian-made Su-30s may “be effective against the F-22, which remains America’s most advanced (and most expensive) fighter,” and “probably could successfully challenge the F-35 provided it is equipped with the right long range missiles, the best radar, and top notch jammers.”

Deeper Ties between Tehran and Moscow

The Su-30 purchase would also bolster the relationship between Russia and Iran, which share the goal of undermining U.S. influence in the Middle East. In mid-February, during a visit to Moscow to negotiate the transaction, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan told Russian television that Tehran seeks to expand military and technical ties with the Kremlin. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the visit will “contribute toward reinforcing friendly relations between Russian and Iranian armed forces.” Tehran and Moscow, he added, are “ready to coordinate their approaches on a large number of global and regional issues.” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari noted several days later that the two countries “have the highest level of political cooperation and are keen to boost economic ties.”

Already, such coordination has expanded on an unprecedented scale over the eight months since the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite military Quds Force, which leads Iran’s global terrorist operations, visited Moscow for talks with Russian leaders only 10 days after Tehran and the P5+1 reached the agreement. The trip, which violated a U.N. travel ban, laid the groundwork for Moscow’s military intervention in Syria two months later on behalf of the Assad regime.

In November, Russia announced that it would soon begin the long-awaited delivery to Iran of the advanced S-300 air defense system, which would make a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities far more difficult. While the Kremlin reportedly froze the weaponry’s transfer in recent days after it received Israeli intelligence that Tehran had transferred advanced Russian-made weaponry to Hezbollah without Moscow’s approval, the planned sale constitutes a potent symbol of resurgent ties between the two regimes. Tehran and the Kremlin had originally signed a contract for the sale in 2007, but Moscow cancelled the deal in 2010 in the face of U.S. pressure. In April 2015, with the final nuclear agreement just over the horizon, Russia reinstated the contract.

The Administration’s Inadequate Response

In the face of these developments, the White House has remained largely inert. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which followed the JCPOA, mandated a five-year embargo on arms transfers to Iran, including “battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, [and] missiles or missile systems.” At the same time, the resolution carved out an exception for sales approved by the UNSC “in advance on a case-by-case basis,” thereby giving veto power over a potential transaction to the United States or any other permanent member. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted, “There was a compromise reached between Iran and Western colleagues which we supported. Five years, but during the five years arms deliveries to Iran would be possible if they clear a notification and verification process in the U.N. Security Council.”

In this context, the State Department has acknowledged that an unapproved Su-30 sale would constitute a violation. Nevertheless, during a February 25 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry sidestepped a direct question concerning U.S. veto plans, stating only that the administration is “very concerned.” “We’ll stay in touch with you,” he added. The S-300 system, for its part, is exempt from the embargo due to its classification as a defensive system.

The Obama administration’s hesitation to act is consistent with its longstanding passivity in the face of Iran’s ongoing defiance of international laws and norms since the JCPOA. In essence, the White House fears that Iran will respond to any act it perceives as hostile by withdrawing from the nuclear agreement, effectively enabling the regime to use the JCPOA as a bargaining chip to deter meaningful consequences for its actions. America’s vacillation at the U.N. thus not only sends Iran the message that it can violate the arms embargo with impunity, but also incentivizes Tehran’s noncompliance with its other UNSC obligations. Not surprisingly, Iran conducted ballistic missile tests this week in violation of UNSCR 2231 following two illicit tests in October and November. In January, the United States belatedly imposed pinprick sanctions in response, but Tehran apparently failed to get the message.

Making matters worse, Secretary Kerry noted last August that the JCPOA’s snapback mechanism, which allows the P5+1 to reinstate sanctions if Iran flouts its nuclear obligations, “is not tied to” the arms restrictions. “It is tied to a separate set of obligations,” he said. “So they are not in material breach of the nuclear agreement for violating the arms piece of it.”

Ending American Passivity

To change Tehran’s behavior, the United States must impose meaningful consequences on Iran for its embargo violations and other acts of defiance. It can begin by vetoing any arms sale at the U.N. Security Council. It should also impose comprehensive new sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — the key beneficiary of illicit arms transfers, the custodian of Iran’s ballistic missile program, and the spearhead of its regional aggression and domestic repression. In the absence of such steps, Iranian belligerence will continue — and render UNSCR 2231 a dead letter.

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