A comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran is will reportedly be announced as early as Monday. And while it’s too soon to say what the parameters (and details) of such an agreement will be, one 11th-hour item of debate is obvious given what both Iranian negotiators and their surrogates in the Western press have argued—namely, that lifting the arms embargo on Tehran is but a minor concession to make in securing a historic diplomatic accord. On the contrary, lifting the embargo is major capitulation to Iran and one that directly threatens U.S. national security.
Advocates of this policy have three main arguments.
First, that the U.S. shouldn’t get preoccupied by this small snag, because Iran’s military is comparatively weaker than that of traditional American allies in the region; the Gulf States, for instance, will retain a substantial conventional power advantage against the Iranians.
Second, Washington’s concessions on the embargo aren’t a big deal because these negotiations are focused on Iran’s nuclear program and the UN sanctions that were put in place in 2007 and onwards to restrict their conventional programs were punishment for refusing to give up their nuclear program. As the Iranian negotiators and their Russian counterparts have argued, all sanctions, put in place because of this program, should be lifted with a deal. In their view, the U.S. is disingenuous to keep these sanctions in place after agreeing to lift all UN sanctions.
Finally, there’s a claim that Iran simply needs advanced weapons to help defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Tehran has argued that more advanced weaponry and weapon systems would aid their efforts to defeat ISIS. Advocates of a stronger U.S.-Iran partnership in fighting ISIS operate on the optimistic thinking that Tehran and the U.S. have a shared common enemy.
Matthew McInnis, a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former senior expert on Iran at the CENTCOM, argues, “these are all red herrings. They distract from Iran’s real threat to U.S. national security interests: an unfettered Iranian armed forces.”
Let’s start with the first argument—that Iran’s neighbors still outspend on their national defense programs. In 2014, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council collectively spent $114 billion on their militaries, far greater than the Iranian defense budget estimated at $16 billion—or $30 billion, according to President Obama, likely throwing in off-the-books funding for Iran’s proxy groups and partners. Riyadh’s spending on military equipment alone has skyrocketed in the past decade, dwarfing Tehran’s outlays. Money here is a lousy metric because while the Gulf States struggle with how to use their fancy new toys, the Iranians have learned how to fight better with less. With the exception of the United Arab Emirate’s Air Force, the Arab Gulf States are not in a favorable position to challenge Iranian sea dominance in the Persian Gulf. Iran has an aging navy but it can still deploy ships thousands of miles away.
It is true that Iran is not a conventional military behemoth. Tehran may have the largest ballistic missile force in the region but those missiles cannot hit their targets with much accuracy. Iran also lacks the ability to establish air superiority or sustain a major land invasion beyond its borders. (Iranian tanks will not be rolling through the streets of Riyadh anytime soon, even if the mullahs desperately want them to.)
Rather, the real threat from increased Iranian military might lies elsewhere. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—the Islamic Republic’s praetorian division designed to guarantee the safety and security of the regime—does not hesitate to remind the world through its harassment of commercial shipping, military exercises, and frequent rhetoric that it can control or shut the Strait of Hormuz, through which 30 percent of the world’s petroleum supplies passes.
Keeping the Strait open depends on the U.S. Navy being able to keep up with effective counter measures against improved Iranian cruise missiles (itself a fact belies the claim that the Gulf States can safeguard their own backyard by themselves), and so Tehran has invested in weapons such as cruise missiles, mines, submarines, and even swarming armed speedboats to specifically target U.S. naval vulnerabilities. Iran’s intent is to make it increasingly costly to operate in the Persian Gulf. Lifting the conventional arms embargo would allow Russia or China to sell Iran the latest generation cruise missiles and drones, which only increase Tehran’s ability to frustrate or harass America’s protectorate of this vital waterway.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed the conventional weapons embargo in 2010, cut off Tehran’s trade with Russia, China and other suppliers in battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, and missiles as well. It’s unclear what Russia or China would sell to the Iranians after the embargo is lifted, but some estimates put Russian arms sales to Iran at potentially $7-8 billion a year if an embargo is lifted. A little more can go a long way, particularly by increasing the range and accuracy of their current systems.
Moreover, Iranian ballistic missiles outfitted with Russian or Chinese quality precision-guidance munitions could be devastating for U.S. and GCC naval and air bases if there are further relaxations on Iran’s acquisition of missile technology. McInnis argues, “Iran is even attempting to develop ballistic missiles to hit U.S. aircraft carriers from hundreds of miles offshore. With more Chinese help it could finally accomplish this goal.” The GCC states’ true fear is a nightmare scenario in which the United States becomes unable or unwilling to operate in the Persian Gulf or Gulf of Oman.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in recent statements has stressed that he has no interest in working with Washington beyond the terms of any nuclear agreement and that America should have no security role in the Middle East—a statement which constitutes a clear and present to U.S. interests which have an outsize security role in the region. Neither will there be any shift in his support of Iran’s regional proxies or allies.
Rather than promoting stability, greater access to advanced missiles, artillery, and combat vehicles could empower a range of Iranian proxy forces, partners and terrorist groups—from Lebanese Hezbollah to the Syrian National Defense Forces (a sectarian paramilitary organization tantamount to Iran’s Basij) to Palestinian Hamas—which remain a threat to U.S. interests and to our regional allies, most notably Israel. These forces could endanger U.S. personnel at regional diplomatic and military facilities and make it more difficult for Washington to secure a political solution in Syria and Iraq, let alone between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Also, American military advisers in Iraq could be further endangered by better-equipped Shia proxies—namely IRGC-backed militias now acting as the vanguard ground army against ISIS—seeking to stymie U.S. efforts to secure the long-term stability of the Iraqi government. Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces, Hashd al-Shaabi, have proven to be viscous sectarian actors in many places in Iraq. If Iran decides to supply them with new air and ground missile equipment, it could be impossible for Baghdad to reintegrate them back into the Iraqi security services and escalate the sectarian violence in the country.
Washington’s bet on Tehran as a partner against ISIS then is rather dubious and questionable. In Syria, Iran has devoted more resources in supporting the Assad government’s efforts in fighting the Qatari, Turkish, and Saudi-backed opposition than ISIS. From conversations with people close to the Assad regime in Damascus, Iran has sanctioned the Assad government’s usage of chlorine gas against their opponents. Tehran has avoided confronting ISIS in Syria, seeing the extremist group as a useful tool against the Syrian rebel opposition groups. Even though Iran is engaged in fighting ISIS in Iraq, their actions appear driven more by containing and managing ISIS in Iraq than defeating it in order to keep the Iraqi state weakened and the central government in Baghdad reliant on Tehran. Serious reform of the Iraqi political system, which would give Sunnis a say in their state’s future and arguably buy their participation in the state, has been an initiative that Iran has blocked since the U.S. withdrawal in 2010. This marriage of convenience is prone to divorce.
The recent uncovering of the IRGC-backed plot to destabilize the monarchy in Jordan only underscores the myth that a better-equipped and wealthier Iran will somehow grow tamer with respect to regional ambitions and that IRGC is even active in places outside of Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq. We must not forget how Tehran sought to conduct a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C., with an attempted assassination of then-Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel Jubeir, an operation that was to have been carried out on American soil.
Increased arms flowing into Hezbollah’s hands and like-minded groups in the Palestinian territories endanger the security of Israel. Further equipping and training of Yemen’s Houthis could position this group to threaten global trade through the Suez Canal if they are able to both establish a naval presence from the Red Sea port of Hodeida and further south at the Mandeb Strait. Increased IRGC armed shipments to the Houthis could lead to more stand-offs in the Gulf of Aden with the U.S. Navy.
Whether or not the conventional arms embargo should remain in a final nuclear deal with Iran is not a simple question of parsing U.S. Security Council Resolution language. This is a critical U.S. national security issue and therefore makes the Obama administration responsible for safeguarding it. Regardless of the Russian and Iranian interpretations of the words and spirit of the UN resolutions and the emerging Joint Plan of Action, Washington can’t let such a debate become a distraction from enabling Iran to emerge from these negotiations as a credible conventional threat to the U.S. and its allies in the region.
In the coming months Washington should remain vigilant in monitoring and constraining Iran’s efforts to further develop its military and the IRGC. This is essential to protecting our interests and the security of our allies. Lifting the embargo would importantly undermine the commitments President Obama made to our GCC partners at the Camp David Summit this past spring.
It is one of the great ironies with this potential deal that in trying to constrain Iran’s nuclear program for 10 to 15 years, we may actually help create an Iranian military that puts the lives of American sailors, soldiers, and airmen at serious risk.