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US seeks to extend Iran arms embargo, setting stage for clash over nuclear deal

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Allie Goulding/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States will not allow Iran to buy or sell conventional arms after a UN embargo expires in October, in a move that could prompt Tehran to pull out the 2015 nuclear deal and a major nonproliferation treaty.

“We’re not going to let that happen,” Pompeo told reporters at a news briefing on April 29 when asked about the expiration of the arms embargo.

“We will work with the UN Security Council to extend that prohibition on those arms sales and then in the event we can’t get anyone else to act, the United States is evaluating every possibility about how we might do that,” he said.

The ban on selling conventional weapons to Iran ends on October 23 under UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

The United States withdrew from the nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran, raising tensions across the Middle East and sending the Iranian economy into a tailspin.

China and Russia, both signatories to the nuclear deal believed to be eager to sell arms to Iran, are likely to exercise their veto at the Security Council to oppose extending the UN arms embargo.

To circumvent China and Russia’s veto power, Pompeo said the United States was prepared to argue that it is still a participant in the nuclear accord because it was listed as one under the UN resolution.

That claim comes even as President Donald Trump clearly stated in May 2018 he was “terminating the United States’ participation” in the JCPOA.

Parties to the nuclear deal can implement a so-called “snapback” mechanism to reimpose sanctions or extend the arms embargo by declaring Iran to be in violation.

“The UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is very clear: We don’t have to declare ourselves a participant,” Pompeo told reporters. “It’s unambiguous and the rights that accrue to participants in the UN Security Council resolution are fully available to all those participants.”

European diplomats have questioned whether Washington can trigger the sanctions snapback because it exited the deal.

Pompeo said that the United States was also urging action from Britain, France, and Germany, the so-called E3 who remain participants to the JCPOA and have tried to save it.

Europe, while sharing U.S. concerns over Iran’s activities in the Middle East and its missile program, already has separate arms restrictions and believes the nuclear issue is more important.

‘Maximum Pressure’ Vs. ‘Maximum Resistance’

There are also questions of whether the existing UN arms embargo is effective as Iran continues to supply regional allies and proxies.

Ali Vaez, the Iran Project director at the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL that an extension was also unlikely to stop China or Russia from selling arms to Iran.

“The removal of the arms embargo is one of the few remaining benefits of the JCPOA for Iran. Depriving Tehran from having access to the arms market will compel Iran to double down on its support for proxies and its ballistic missiles program,” he said.

In response to the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran has ratcheted up regional tensions and breached parts of the nuclear deal it says can be quickly reversed if the other parties comply with their obligations.

A so-called “strategic patience” doctrine designed to bide time in hopes Trump is a one-term president has shifted to one of “maximum resistance.”

Having gained little economic benefit under the nuclear deal, Iranian officials have said they may completely withdraw from the JCPOA and international Non-Proliferation Treaty if the arms embargo is extended.

“This is not a bluff. It allows Tehran to gain immediate leverage and it creates an international nonproliferation crisis that could backfire on Trump during his re-election campaign” ahead of the November election, Vaez said.