How the U.S. Will Try to Extend the Arms Embargo on Iran

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Next week the U.S. will try to get the U.N. Security Council to do something it has been trying to get its allies to support for the last year: Extend the U.N.’s conventional arms embargo against Iran, which is slated to expire in October. The resolution will almost certainly fail, but that doesn’t mean America’s Iran policy has to be a failure.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. would introduce the resolution on Wednesday, a day before he announced that his senior envoy on Iran policy, Brian Hook, would be leaving. The U.N. Security Council would make an “absolute mockery” of its mission to maintain international peace and security, Pompeo said, “if it allowed the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism to buy and sell weapons freely.”

Pompeo is not wrong. One of the many flaws of the 2015 Iran deal is that it allowed for the arms embargo to expire in the first place. That concession was in part at the behest of China and Russia, which were part of the negotiations, and the two nations are likely to use their veto at the Security Council to scuttle the resolution. Thus the U.S. strategy to extend the embargo is destined to fail.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft has acknowledged as much. “Russia and China are going to be who they are,” she told me in an interview this week at the Aspen Security Forum. “I’m not going to be able to change their minds. However, what we can do is change the way other countries look to them and look at them, and that’s what’s important.” In other words, Pompeo’s strategy in the short term is to shame two great-power rivals at the U.N.

But Pompeo has another card to play. If and when the U.S. loses the U.N. vote to extend the arms embargo, it could still theoretically impose it — “snap back” is the diplomatic term — through a provision of the 2015 nuclear deal that President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. As Pompeo told reporters Wednesday, that is “an option that’s available to the United States, and we’re going to do everything within America’s power to ensure that that arms embargo is extended.”

On the surface, it’s a strange maneuver. The snap-back provision of the U.N. Security Council resolution that codified the Iran nuclear deal was designed as a tool for states that were a party to that agreement. As Anthony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state and adviser to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, said this week at the Aspen Security Forum: “Snap back needs to be invoked by a participant in the deal.”

Others disagree. Richard Goldberg, who managed the maximum pressure campaign against Iran at the U.S. National Security Council, told me the U.N. resolution that codified the nuclear deal “was drafted precisely to defend the U.S. right to snap back, in any scenario, at any time.” If Iran is in breach of its commitments, he said, the U.S. has the right to snap back previous resolutions that were lifted as a result of the nuclear deal — regardless of whether the U.S. remains a party to that agreement.

Regardless of the legalities of the current or future conventional arms embargo against Iran, there is a very good chance that Russia and China will move to arm the Iranians anyway. International law has not stood in the way of these countries before. China has already begun discussions for closer security partnership with Iran.

For now, Pompeo’s play at the U.N. is mainly symbolic. As Craft told me, the rest of the world will see that China and Russia “have blood on their hands.” But anyone who’s paid attention for the last 75 years probably knew that already.

The most realistic strategy for the U.S. moving forward — under either Trump or Biden — will have to be unilateral. It’s foolish to expect the U.N. to promote security and peace in the Middle East when two of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council do not have the same interests as the U.S. and its allies in the region.

A better approach is for the U.S. to use its Navy, its allies and its vast intelligence capabilities to interdict arms shipments to Iran. The U.S. has used this strategy before, under President George W. Bush against North Korea. It should consider it again when it comes to Iran.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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