A dispute over whether to lift an international embargo against selling conventional weapons to Iran threatens to derail negotiations over its nuclear program.
Iran and Russia are pressing to lift the embargo, first imposed in 2007 under a United Nations Security Council resolution, as part of any agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. Doing so, however, would make it more difficult for U.S. President Barack Obama to win congressional approval of an Iran deal.
“This is clearly one of the final issues they need to close the gap on,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. Negotiators in Vienna have extended the talks through Monday, July 13.
Central to the debate is whether the arms embargo is one of the sanctions that were imposed to pressure Iran to curb its nuclear development program -- and should be “among the first steps taken” in lifting them, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week -- or should be maintained to avoid strengthening Iran’s aging military and triggering a Mideast arms race.
The U.S. has warned against allowing sales of conventional weapons -- including advanced combat aircraft, tanks, warships and missiles -- to a country it says supports terrorist groups.
“I can’t imagine that any member of Congress” will support a proposed treaty that “goes beyond the nuclear issues on the table and also gives Iran relief for the conventional arms embargo or their ballistic missile program,” Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Armed Services Committee who’s said Obama’s stance in the nuclear talks has been too conciliatory, said in an interview.
“It’s unsurprising that the Russians would seek to strengthen a rabidly anti-American, destabilizing force in the Middle East by allowing yet more military weaponry to flow into Iran,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said in an interview.
The 2007 UN resolution calls on all nations to restrict “the supply, sale or transfer” to Iran “of any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems.”
The embargo was enhanced by a 2010 resolution that called for a complete ban, along with a prohibition against providing “technical training, financial resources or services, advice, other services or assistance” needed for any arms sales.
The U.S. wants to keep the arms embargo in place, at least initially, even if an agreement is reached that would ease economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.
“Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking,” the top U.S. military officer, Army General Martin Dempsey, said at a July 7 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We want them to continue to be isolated as a military and limited in terms of the kind of equipment and material” that Iran can obtain, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at the same hearing.
Putting it more bluntly, Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, said, “We’re about to give Iran a signing bonus of tens of billions of dollars and they want to lift the arms embargo. Put those two together and what does that tell you they are doing to do? Use that money to buy a bunch of conventional arms that are going to be used to destabilize allies in the region.”
In a move that splits the six world powers negotiating with Iran, Russia and China have insisted that the arms embargo be lifted as part of the easing of sanctions in any nuclear deal.
“We advocate the removal of the weapons embargo as soon as possible, especially as Iran is a supporter of the fight against Islamic State,” Lavrov told reporters Thursday in Ufa, Russia.
The Iranian and Russian stance is bolstered by the language of the UN resolution in 2007, which said the arms embargo was imposed to persuade Iran to “constrain Iran’s development of sensitive technologies in support of its nuclear and missile” programs.
“The purpose was to provide additional leverage vis-a-vis the nuclear issue,” Kimball said.
The U.S. and its Western allies suspect Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran says its program is for civilian energy and medical research.
Kimball said negotiators in Vienna may be able to find a compromise that phases out the arms embargo over time based on specified actions that Iran would have to take.
“I think it is resolvable,” he said.