U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the UN Security Council on June 30 to extend an arms embargo on Iran, warning allowing it to expire in October would cause instability in the Middle East.
"Don't just take it from me or the United States, listen to countries in the region, from Israel, the Gulf, countries in the Middle East who are most exposed to Iran's predations are speaking with a single voice: extend the arms embargo," Pompeo said.
The United States has formally asked the 15-member Security Council to extend the UN embargo, which is set to be progressively eased beginning in October under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
Veto-wielding Russia and China have said they oppose the U.S. move and have questioned Washington’s right to use a disputed legal move to force a return of UN sanctions on Iran.
"Having quit the JCPOA, the U.S. is no longer a participant and has no right to trigger a snapback at the Security Council," Chinese envoy Zhang Jun told the Security Council session, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal by its acronym.
The United States pulled out of the nuclear agreement in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions as part of what it calls a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. In response, Iran gradually started breaching its nuclear commitments.
Washington has argued it can trigger a “snapback” mechanism on UN sanctions and the arms embargo because it was a signatory to the agreement in 2015 and Iran has since not fully complied with its commitments.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Security Council the removal of arms restrictions was “an inseparable part” of the nuclear deal.
"Any attempt to change or amend the agreed timetable is thus tantamount to undermining Resolution 2231 in its entirety," he said.
If the embargo is lifted, Iran would likely seek to purchase fighter jets, tanks, naval assets, and other weapons from China and Russia to rebuild its aging military hardware. However, given the dire state of its economy there are questions over whether Tehran has the funds to make significant weapons purchases.
Faced with the UN arms embargo, Iran has long sought to develop ballistic missiles as a deterrent and employed a relatively inexpensive strategy of asymmetric warfare and use of proxy forces around the region.
The UN arms embargo has not prevented Iran from supplying weapons to allies across the Middle East, including to Syria, Iraqi militias, Lebanon’s Hizballah militant group, and Yemen’s Huthi rebels.
The Security Council gathered to hear a UN report that found cruise missiles and drones used in attacks on oil facilities and an airport in Saudi Arabia last year were of “Iranian origin.”
"Iran is already violating the arms embargo even before its expiration date. Imagine if Iranian activity were sanctioned -- authorized -- by this group if the restrictions are lifted," Pompeo said.
If the United States is unsuccessful at extending the arms embargo, Washington has threatened to trigger at the Security Council a return of all UN sanctions on Iran under the nuclear deal.
That policy is likely to be fraught with difficultly because the U.S. quit the deal and faces resistance from other countries, including allies.
Britain, France, and Germany are concerned about the arms embargo being lifted but have said they are trying to reach a compromise out of concern Iran will completely exit the nuclear deal and act on threats to pull out of a key nonproliferation treaty.
However, European parties to the nuclear treaty also say they will not back U.S. efforts to unilaterally trigger a return of all UN sanctions on Iran.