Trump Administration Unveils Security Council Resolution Extending Iran Arms Embargo

But the draft has little support among major powers at the U.N., reflecting Washington’s isolation on its Iran policy.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft speaks at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks at the U.N. Security Council in New York on Feb. 11. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump introduced a long-awaited U.N. Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution extending an arms embargo on Iran that is due to expire in October, setting the stage for a great-power clash and likely veto in the U.N.’s principal security body, according to a copy of the draft obtained by Foreign Policy.

The U.S. draft resolution would oblige nations, including the United States, to take active measures to prevent Iran from supplying, selling, or transferring arms to other countries, unless the Security Council committee overseeing U.N. sanctions approves such transfers. The measure would also require all U.N. member states to inspect cargo transiting through their territory to check for illicit arms imports or exports from Iran, and grant them authority to seize and destroy such weapons.

It would also impose an asset freeze and travel ban on individuals responsible for violating the arms embargo, and authorize states to “seize, inspect, freeze (impound), confiscate, and dispose of any vessel in their ports.” In an effort to ratchet up pressure on Iran, the resolution would request that U.N. Secretary General António Guterres report any attacks by armed groups that threaten regional stability or interference in the freedom of navigation in the region. The resolution would also establish a special council committee to monitor compliance with the sanctions and appoint a panel of eight experts to investigate and compile information on potential violations of the embargo.

If passed, the resolution would fall under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, making it legally binding and enforceable. But the U.S. measure, according to several U.N. Security Council diplomats, stands little chance of being adopted by the 15-nation council. One council diplomat said that the U.S. initiative might not even receive the minimum threshold of nine votes it needs in the council that would force a veto from one of the permanent Security Council members. “This is not something that they are trying to get through the council,” said the diplomat.

Some council diplomats and other nonproliferation experts see the U.S. move as a way to score political points at home, not to do anything about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.

“The skeptic in me says that the objective of this exercise is to go through the arms embargo resolution, and when it fails, to use that as an excuse to get a snapback of the embargo, and if and when that fails too, to use as a political talking point in the election campaign,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Since China and Russia are almost certain to ignore any U.N. arms embargo forced by U.S. maneuvers, the practical impact on Iran’s ability to cause mischief will be minimal, he said.

“It’s not actually about stopping any arms from China and Russia, it’s about winning a political argument,” he said.

The draft also condemns a string of alleged armed attacks by Iran against the United States, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, including the September 2019 drone and missile attack against two Saudi oil installations and a Dec. 27 strike allegedly by an Iranian-backed militia against an Iraqi military base in Kirkuk province, Iraq, which resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen and injured several U.S. and Iraqi personnel.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) envisioned the expiration of a sweeping U.N. arms embargo on Iran after five years if Tehran complied with its obligation to scale back its nuclear activities and subject its program to expanded international monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran had largely complied with its obligations until Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in May 2018 and reintroduced a series of U.S. sanctions against the country. 

Since then, Tehran has violated key tenets of the JCPOA, including enriching uranium to purity levels higher than what is allowed in the deal and increasing the stockpiles of enriched uranium, according to assessments from the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

China and Russia, which wield veto power over Security Council decisions, have signaled their unwillingness to approve the resolution. Other signatories of the Iran deal—Britain, France, and Germany—have all supported retaining arms embargoes on Iran, but they also came out against the Trump administration’s threat to reimpose sanctions, highlighting the sharp disagreements between Washington and its closest European allies over Iran. 

“We firmly believe that any unilateral attempt to trigger UN sanctions snapback would have serious adverse consequences in the UNSC,” the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Germany said in a statement on June 19. “We would not support such a decision which would be incompatible with our current efforts to preserve the JCPoA.”

The foreign ministers also cautioned that lifting the U.N. conventional arms embargo “would have major implications for regional security and stability” but stressed that even without a U.N. arms embargo, the European Union has its own ban on sending conventional weapons and missile technology to Iran through 2023. Senior U.S. officials have said that Russia and China would be poised to sell conventional arms to Iran if the U.N. embargo expires.

A State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy that “failing to extend the arms embargo will risk even greater violence in the Middle East.”

The spokesperson added that the U.S. is “hopeful” that the draft resolution will be supported by the Security Council, stating that China and Russia have upheld similar restrictions in the past. “Given that Iran’s activity continues to pose a threat to international peace and security, we do not see any reason why [the] Security Council consensus on this issue should have changed,” the spokesperson said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued on Twitter Tuesday that if the arms embargo expires, Iran would be able to purchase Russian and Chinese jets, allowing Tehran to potentially threaten Europe and Asia, though Pompeo used one-way flight ranges for those aircraft to exaggerate their potential threat.

The Trump administration’s push to reimpose sanctions opened a unique legal debate over the United States’ current standing with the JCPOA. The Trump administration has argued that it is still legally a party to the deal the president disavowed, allowing it to trigger the snapback of sanctions. This argument has angered top diplomats from other countries that were signatories to the deal, who said the United States couldn’t have it both ways.

Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s top Iran envoy, said in an interview with Foreign Policy last month that the president remains open to “sitting down” with Tehran for talks on a new deal. He said that the United States would still maintain its expanding sanctions regime on Iran in the meantime. 

“We’re in no hurry. We have a good policy in place. The regime needs to decide when it wants to come to the table,” he said.

Foreign Policy reporters Keith Johnson and Jack Detsch contributed to this report.

Update, June 23, 2020: This story was updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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