Kremlin will abandon U.N.-approved arms embargo on Iran when it expires in October
Russia announced Friday that it will not extend its support of the U.N.-approved arms embargo on Iran when it expires in October. That opens the door to advanced weapons sales to the Islamic Republic that could include modern jet fighters and submarines.
The United States, which is the No. 1 supplier of arms in the Middle East, objected to the Russia announcement. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Moscow that new arms sales would mean Iran will be “unleashed to create new global turmoil.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency Thursday, “We’re not ready to do the bidding of our American colleagues.”
This end of Russian support for the embargo could mean Iran will be able to fulfill its weapons wish list for the first time in decades. Among weapons it would like to acquire, according to a Defense Intelligence Agency report, are Su-30 fighters, Yak-130 trainers, and T-90 tanks. Russia has recently expanded its arms sales throughout the Middle East, pitching advanced weaponry to just about any nation with the cash.
When Donald Trump announced last year that the United States was leaving the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran and would reimpose economic sanctions, he vowed to negotiate a new, much better pact to replace what he labeled the “horrible, one-sided” 2015 agreement put together by the Obama administration, Iran, and five other nations after 20 months of intense talks. That new, better pact obviously is nowhere to be seen. While the old one is still technically in force, it gets more tattered every day, and nobody, including U.S. allies France, Britain, and Germany, seriously believes it can be restored.
Tattered is also the state of the heavily oil-dependent Iranian economy. A year ago June, Iran was exporting 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, having expanded export volumes by 13% since the sanctions were removed by President Obama. Now that export figure is somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 barrels a day. This has put a severe crimp in an economy that was just beginning to improve after years of sanctions. Independent analysts say Iran’s gross domestic product will end the year nearly 10% lower than last year, inflation continues to soar around 50%, overall unemployment is 10.5% (although that’s an undercount because of an adjustment in how the metric is calculated), and youth unemployment is running at 26%, in a country where 40% of the population is under 25.
This puts the Islamic regime in a bind because it has long maintained its semi-autocratic hold over the population with a social contract that uses oil revenues to subsidize basic commodities and an electoral system that allows some modest wiggle room for the nation’s elites to have a say over Iran’s direction. Thus, when the regime added a spark to the volatile situation by boosting gasoline prices by 50% in mid-November, protests arose almost immediately in 100 cities. Outwardly, at least, these were initially economic in nature, unlike the violently suppressed uprising of the Green Movement in 2009 over what activists viewed as a rigged election designed to keep reformers out. The nearly immediate response this time was to gun down hundreds of protesters. This led some dissidents to directly challenge the legitimacy of the regime itself, and they burned hundreds of banks and state-owned businesses.
The hard-line response was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and backed up by President Hassan Rouhani. But it was largely carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its allies in the police forces. Since 2009, the IRGC and other security forces have been steadily strengthened, but lately that has gone further, with the “supreme” in Khamenei’s authority—his ability to balance factions—greatly weakened.
The hard-liners argue that they’ve been vindicated in their opposition to the nuclear agreement. They have been impatient with the go-slow moves away from compliance with the agreement that Rouhani has been taking in hopes of salvaging it and keeping the Europeans on board, however tenuously. The hard-liners would prefer a sharp break. They have also pushed harder than before to build up Iran’s military. One aspect of that is the war games that Iran, Russia, and China are undertaking this week.
Things didn’t have to be this way. If instead of taking the U.S. out of the nuclear agreement, Donald Trump had used it as a springboard to negotiating additional agreements limiting, for instance, Iran’s ever-more sophisticated missile development, the situation might have been much calmer. Such additional negotiations were, in fact, what many soft-power advocates of the Obama administration had hoped would emerge from the nuclear agreement. Instead, as in so many other policy arenas, domestic and foreign, the Trump regime will be leaving the next president with a perilous mess that might have been avoided.