Iranian Mayhem Is About to Get Worse
Back in 2015, desperate to reach a
deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program, U.S. negotiators made a fateful concession:
The UN’s conventional-arms embargo on Iran, they agreed, would be lifted in
The costs of that concession, one of
the worst mistakes of those negotiations, are about to come due. The embargo is
set to expire on Oct. 18, 2020 — and if it does, the situation in the Middle
East is likely to get even worse.
The concession wasn’t to Iran so
much as to China and Russia, two great-power rivals that participated in the
nuclear negotiations. In the 1990s, China and Russia sold Iran a variety of
weapons systems, which the Iranians then reverse-engineered. By this time next
year, America’s two most potent geopolitical rivals will have a green light to
sell advanced missiles to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
It would be bad enough if Iran kept
those weapons for itself. But if past is prelude, there is a good chance
Iran’s numerous proxies in the Middle East will benefit as well.
Last week, in little-noticed testimony before
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the U.S. special representative for
Iran, Brian Hook, shared information from newly declassified U.S. intelligence
Since mid-2017, he said, Iran has
“expanded its ballistic missile activities to partners across the region.”
That includes Hezbollah, Palestinian terrorist groups and, as of mid-2018, Shia
militias in Iraq. The new intelligence also finds that Iran has increased its
support of Hezbollah by helping to expand the group’s ability to produce its
own rockets and missiles. Finally, Hook said, the U.S. intelligence community
now believes Iran is developing “missile systems and related technology solely
for export to its regional proxies.”
Taken together, this information
underscores not only the need to extend the United Nations arms embargo, but
also the limits of the current U.S. strategy of “maximum
pressure.” While crippling sanctions on Iran have made it much harder for
groups such as Hezbollah and Shiite militias to pay salaries, they have not put
a dent in Iran’s broader quest to arm those proxies with weapons capable of
hitting U.S. allies. The world learned this firsthand in September, when an
Iranian missile destroyed a
crude oil processing facility deep inside Saudi Arabia.
Since that attack, neither the U.S.
nor Saudi Arabia has responded with an overt military strike. Earlier this month
an Iranian oil tanker exploded in
the Red Sea, but no country has claimed credit. Meanwhile, the U.S. retreat from
northeastern Syria this month will potentially give Iran and its proxies more
influence inside that failed state.
This geopolitical picture, combined
with the new intelligence about Iran, makes the need for extending the arms
embargo on Iran all the more urgent. Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the
Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me Wednesday that the U.N. arms
embargo makes it much easier for the U.S. and its allies to devise the
legal predicate to interdict weapons shipments to and from Iran.
The real danger, though, is that both
China and Russia possess technology that will make Iran’s already formidable
military production even better. Taleblu pointed to a Chinese and Russian cruise
missile that can be disguised in a cargo ship’s container. If Iran can upgrade
its arsenal, he said, it would be “the greatest missile power in the Middle
The problem for the U.S. is that any
extension of the arms embargo would require agreement from both China and
Russia, either of which can veto resolutions at the UN Security Council.
This places President Donald Trump’s administration in a position similar to
that of its predecessor. Between 2013 and 2015, Barack Obama’s administration
needed Chinese and Russian support for a final deal with Iran because it
believed the crippling sanctions that compelled Iran to negotiate would be
toothless otherwise. And one cost of this multilateral diplomacy was the
expiration of the UN arms embargo.
Now it’s up to Hook and Secretary
of State Mike Pompeo to make the case to China and Russia to forgo weapons sales
to Iran for the sake of broader Middle East stability. To say that’s a long
shot would be an understatement.