The UN arms embargo on Iran expired after 13 years on Sunday, as the signatories of the Iran Deal refused to cooperate with US efforts to extend it.
In light of the US triggering "snapback sanctions" meant to stop the restrictions on Iran from expiring, "virtually all UN sanctions on Iran returned, including reimposition of the UN arms embargo," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on September 19.
However, the other parties to the Iran deal did not accept the American move as valid.
"Every nation that seeks peace and stability in the Middle East and supports the fight against terrorism should refrain from any arms transactions with Iran," Pompeo said. "Providing arms to Iran will only aggravate tensions in the region, put more dangerous weapons into the hands of terrorist groups and proxies, and risk increasing threats to the security of Israel and other peaceful nations."
"Any nation that sells weapons to Iran is impoverishing the Iranian people by enabling the regime's diversion of funds away from the people and toward the regime's military aims," he said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called it "a momentous day for the international community, which, in defiance of malign US efforts, has protected" the Iran deal.
"Today's normalization of Iran's defense cooperation with the world is a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region," he said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel must be "stronger and more determined than in the past" in light of the embargo ending.
"Iran was never an Israeli problem, but foremost a global and regional problem," he said. "As defense minister, I will continue to lead the necessary actions to prevent Iran's spread and armament with our old and new partners. All the countries of the world must join this important effort."
Russia has openly eyed arms sales to Iran in recent weeks. Russian Ambassador to Iran Levan Dzhagaryan last week said Moscow would be willing to sell Iran the S-400 missile-defense system. Last month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov hailed "new opportunities in our cooperation with Iran" to emerge after the embargo ends.
China and Iran have been holding ongoing negotiations for a 25-year strategic partnership that would include military cooperation, among many other areas. US reports have indicated that Iran and North Korea have renewed cooperation on ballistic missiles, and Turkey also seeks to sell weapons to Iran.
At the same time, Iran may wait until after the US presidential election next month before deciding how to proceed, in light of divergent policies on the matter by US President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Trump has pursued a "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign in an attempt to drive Iran back to the negotiating table. Biden has called for a return to the 2015 Iran deal negotiated by president Barack Obama's administration, in which he was vice president, which would grant some sanctions relief for Tehran and then negotiate to strengthen that agreement.
Shortly before midnight, Iran's Foreign Ministry said "America failed" and that "as of today, all restrictions on the transfer of arms, related activities and financial services to and from the Islamic Republic... are all automatically terminated."
The statement pointed out that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers was called, stipulated that the arms embargo and other restrictions in the future – on Iran's ballistic–missile program in 2023 and nuclear program in 2025 – would be automatically lifted. These are called the deal's "sunset clauses."
The JCPOA also allows for "snapback sanctions," which were meant to induce Iranian compliance with the agreement by threatening that any party to it could unilaterally block the "sunset" of restrictions on Iran if the regime violates the agreement's terms.
Iran has repeatedly contravened the JCPOA.
Iran has repeatedly contravened the JCPOA. An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report from last month confirmed that Iran breached the restriction on enriching uranium, the stockpile limit on uranium hexafluoride gas, the limit on the number of advanced centrifuges and the prohibition on accumulated enriched uranium, as well as the prohibition of uranium activities at the Fordow facility.
Tehran has boasted in recent months that it does not need to import arms and is looking to export its drones, missiles and other technology. In fact, Iran developed its own ballistic missile and missile-defense capabilities, including the Qassem precision-guided ballistic missile, with a range of 1,400 km., and the Abu Mahdi cruise missile, whose range is more than 1,000 km., which were unveiled in August.
In January, the "E3" – France, Germany and the UK – invoked the JCPOA's dispute resolution mechanism in light of Iran's violations, which have continued in the subsequent months.
Yet, when the US sought to trigger snapback sanctions to block the UN arms embargo's expiry, the E3 along with the JCPOA's other signatories, the EU, China, Russia and, of course, Iran, would not cooperate, saying the US had no right to do so because it left the Iran deal in 2015.
However, the US has pointed out that the snapback sanctions are part of UN Security Resolution 2231, as opposed to just the JCPOA, and that resolution specifically lists the US as one of the parties that can reinstate sanctions in light of Iranian violations.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initiated the snapback sanctions in August, and the process allowed other UN Security Council members 30 days to dispute it. But none did because they did not recognize the validity of the American declaration.
On September 20, Pompeo said the embargo was reimposed and announced new sanctions against Iran as part of the US "maximum pressure" plan.
"The United States expects all UN Member States to fully comply with their obligations to implement these measures," Pompeo said. "In addition to the arms embargo, this includes restrictions such as the ban on Iran engaging in enrichment and reprocessing-related activities, the prohibition on ballistic-missile testing and development by Iran, and sanctions on the transfer of nuclear- and missile-related technologies to Iran, among others."
"If UN Member States fail to fulfill their obligations to implement these sanctions, the United States is prepared to use our domestic authorities to impose consequences for those failures and ensure that Iran does not reap the benefits of UN-prohibited activity," he said.
The EU arms embargo on Iran will continue through 2023, but none of the other JCPOA parties has thus far adopted the US position.
Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria in recent years, and Jerusalem has warned about the precision-munitions factories in Lebanon, including in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to the UN General Assembly last month.
Gulf states, except for Qatar, are concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Saudi King Salman dedicated much of his UNGA address to Tehran's malign actions.
Meanwhile, Iran is proud of its indigenous military capabilities, honed through the crucible of the Iran-Iraq War, which has led to the country expanding its ballistic-missile, drone and radar capabilities. It has trafficked weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, ballistic missiles to Iraq and other arms to Syria and Lebanon.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.