By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
On multiple levels, Iran’s recent launch of a military satellite was a warning to the world. Coming in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it was perhaps the most evident confirmation of the clerical regime’s misplaced priorities. And by utilizing an entirely new type of domestically-produced rocket, the launch flew in the face of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling upon Iran to avoid work on any device that could double as delivery systems for a nuclear weapon.
Presumably, the satellite launch has helped to solidify the political will of American lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who have since written to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in support of efforts to extend the UN embargo on weapons sales to Iran, which is currently set to expire in October. In a statement accompanying the letter, Texas Republican Michael McCaul affirmed: “Nearly every member of the U.S. House of Representatives is in agreement: Iran must not be allowed to buy or sell weapons.”
Even during the time that embargo has been in place, the Iranian regime has reportedly contributed to expanded range and improve accuracy of rockets utilized by a number of militant proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and the Houthi in Yemen. Although the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has kept these groups supplied through sophisticated smuggling operations, there is no telling how much the trend of arms proliferation would grow if UN restrictions were lifted.
The IRGC’s satellite launch underscores this threat and suggests that various American and European assets, both in the Middle East and beyond, could be brought within range for multiple terrorist groups in the years to come. If Western allies fail to extend the arms embargo, it is not difficult to imagine them similarly failing to keep the reins on other Iranian regime activities, including the nuclear program. Then, one day, the world may awake to find that the same terrorist groups have access to a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it.
That is a worst-case scenario, but it doesn’t take much for the world to start down a slippery slope that leads to that outcome. The first step would be to ignore the significance of Iranian regime’s defiant rocket tests. But as long as the world understands just what a threat those tests represent, it will be harder to look the other way as the regime’s allies and apologists appeal for permissiveness, either with regard to arms sales or with regard to access to foreign markets.
Traditionally, US-led sanctions and the arms embargo have gone hand-in hand. But the 2015 nuclear deal threatens to decouple the two. The European signatories to that deal are keen to keep it on the books despite the US having withdrawn in 2018. That is why the White House reportedly faces such an uphill battle in its effort to extend the embargo.
The Security Council resolution that governs that deal also sets the embargo’s expiration date. Neither Russian nor China shows any sign of willingness to change this. The remaining three permanent members of the council can only hope to force the matter by utilizing the provision of the nuclear deal that snaps all multilateral sanctions back into place once Iran is declared to be in significant violation.
The US relinquished its ability to trigger snapback when it exited the deal. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany actually initiated the process early this year, after Iran cease compliance with all limits on nuclear enrichment and stockpiling. Nonetheless, they have shown little sign of seeing the process through to its conclusion, and Josep Borrell, the European Union’s head of foreign policy, has even suggested that deadlines for dispute resolution could be extended indefinitely.
In other words, the process could rather easily be drawn out until the arms embargo expires, rending the snapback provision essentially meaningless as adversarial states like Russia and China kick-start the Iranian arms trade. In the interest of preserving an agreement that Iran isn’t even complying with anymore, the Europeans appear willing to throw away their opportunity to extend an arms embargo that they know is vital to security in the Middle East and beyond.
Then again, the European leaders don’t fully understand the extent of the threat they’d be inviting if they let the embargo expire. While remaining at odds with the US over the nuclear deal, some European lawmakers have also expressed sympathy with the regime’s appeals for sanctions relief in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. It is difficult to imagine anyone taking this position if they had been paying attention to indicators like the IRGC’s satellite launch.
In attempting to portray US sanctions as inhumane, the Iranian regime insists that it cannot obtain resources that are necessary for managing a public health crisis. But in reality, the medicine and other humanitarian goods are exempt from sanctions enforcement, and Tehran doesn’t need foreign-held assets in order to purchase them.
A recent report by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) noted that the IRGC and regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei collectively wield direct control over hundreds of billions of dollars that they could use at a moment’s notice to help the Iranian people through the coronavirus outbreak. But in doing so, they would have to direct those funds away from projects that preserve and extend the mullahs’ hold on power.
Among these, of course, is the IRGC’s ballistic missile program. And in light of this fact, the recent space-launch has not only been a symbol of provocative foreign policy; it has also been a sign of the types of projects that are most likely to benefit from any new concessions that are granted to the Iranian regime.
Comments from the Trump administration and the House of Representatives show that US lawmakers, on the whole, are fully aware of this. But a lack of conviction from their allies suggests that the nations of Europe are not paying sufficient attention to Iranian threats. There is little doubt that this can change, but it is as clear as ever that the US must lead the way.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)