Iran’s military will gain powerful new conventional weapons in a nuclear deal if Russia has its way, making it tougher than ever for President Barack Obama to sell an accord to an already skeptical Congress.
Russia is pressing to end a United Nations arms embargo on Iran at a time when the Islamic Republic is already poised to add potent offensive weapons to its arsenal, with or without a deal. Analysts, citing satellite imagery, say the Iranian military is on the cusp of producing armor-busting bombs, a capability few nations can claim.
“Part of the reason the administration is going to care about this a great deal is that Congress will use it,” Gary Sick, a former National Security Council official under three U.S. presidents, said of the Russian bid. “Opponents of the deal will say Iran has a free hand to develop anything it wants.”
Negotiators of six world powers and Iran are in the 12th day of their latest bid to craft a final agreement, having given themselves an extension beyond Tuesday’s deadline. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said ending the UN weapons ban was the only major sticking point on the sanctions relief Iran demands as the price of a nuclear pact.
“It is essential to reach an agreement on lifting the arms embargo as soon as possible,” he told reporters at talks in Vienna. Giving Iran access to weapons to combat terrorism “is a very important task,” he said.
Russia also plans to start supplying S-300 anti-aircraft defense systems to Iran this year over U.S. and Israeli objections, ending a self-imposed ban from 2010.
In Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter staked out a tough stand when asked about ending the UN ban on selling or buying seven categories of weapons, including tanks, fighter aircraft and missiles.
“We have serious concerns with Iranian malign activities outside of the nuclear issue,” he said in Senate testimony. “We want them to continue to be isolated as a military and limited in terms of the kind of equipment and material” they possess.
A U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested greater flexibility, saying Tuesday that while an arms embargo should be retained, its nature and duration were subject to negotiation.
Russia is poised to reap $7 billion from arms sales to Iran over the next decade in the event of a nuclear deal, according to Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Moscow-based Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, which advises the defense ministry. The Islamic Republic needs a “huge upgrade” of its fighter jets, navy and air defense systems, he said.
Exports of military goods and technology from Russia came to more than $15.5 billion in 2014.
While Russia wants the UN embargo lifted to sell Iran more weapons, Iran doesn’t necessarily need imports to bolster its armaments and has “numerous channels” through which it can export weapons, said Karl Dewey, a London-based IHS Janes analyst.
With or without a deal, Iran’s military is likely to have the capacity to produce armor-piercing weapons made from either natural or depleted uranium, an ability shared by fewer than 20 countries worldwide, Dewey said. Armor-piercing weapons can also be made from tungsten and copper.
Although conventional and metallurgically dissimilar to nuclear weapons, uranium-penetrating shells are used against tanks and other vehicles. Their high heat and density can melt through thick alloys. Iran already has at least one armor-piercing weapons system, the Toophan anti-tank missile, according to U.S. military research.
“They’re not a game-changer but they’re a potent capability,” Dewey said in a telephone interview.
Iran is probably already testing armor-penetrating weapons systems and uranium can’t be exluded as possible source material of interest, according to Robert Kelley, a former director of the UN atomic watchdog and an ex-U.S. nuclear weapons scientist who used satellite images in February 2015 to analyze the Parchin military complex 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Tehran
Iran’s ability to turn the leftovers, so-called “tails,” from its uranium enrichment program into armor-busting munitions has been a subject of the current nuclear talks, according to a U.S. administration official and an Iranian negotiator. They asked not to be identified in conformance with diplomatic rules.
A senior Western diplomat said Tuesday that the arms embargo was “one of the most sensitive issues” that would have to be resolved right at the end at a top political level.
A day earlier, a senior Iranian official said the arms embargo must be removed immediately because it’s “extraneous” to the nuclear issue.
A possible face-saving compromise would lift the arms embargo in a phased manner, said Sick.
“It’s not the U.S. negotiating with Iran. I think we’re negotiating with the Russians,” he said. “Although it’s a touchy issue, I doubt it will be a deal-breaker.”
(Corrects wording of Iran’s capability in 13th paragraph of story that was first published on July 8.)