July 08, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Lifting arms embargo would be a real coup for Iran

In the latest snag in the P5+1 talks, Russia is pushing for lifting the conventional arms embargo on Iran as part of the nuclear agreement. The United Nations imposed this embargoin March 2007 as part of Security Council Resolution 1747, which tightened the council’s nuclear sanctions on Tehran. Removing the embargo could have profound negative effects on the balance of power between Iran and the Gulf States by allowing Tehran to more rapidly modernize its aging and relatively impotent conventional military. This would doubly be the case if the deal relaxed the US and EU conventional arms embargos and the international restrictions on Iran’s missile technology procurement.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) needs better ground and air equipment in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Tehran is likely quietly advocating for this concession on that premise. Iranian negotiators remain coy about this last minute wrinkle in the discussions, however. A derailment of the talks over a last minute conventional arms issue—rather than a nuclear one—would likely cast the blame for the failure squarely on Tehran. Moscow has a real financial and, to a lesser degree, strategic incentive to restart its arms sales to the Iranian military. Iran is happy to let Russia fight this one out with the United States and the Europeans. If the United States and the Europeans buy into Tehran’s argument, Iran could walk away from the deal with a huge strategic gain that easily compensates for any restraints it is accepting on its nuclear program.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is anticipating precisely this kind of military expansion.Khamenei announced the framework for the Islamic Republic’s sixth five-year development plan on June 30. His top priorities, in order:

  • Averaging economic growth of eight percent
  • Developing Iran’s anti-corruption strategy
  • Improving defense and missile capabilities
  • Prioritizing economic diplomacy
  • Exploiting new public diplomacy efforts
  • Being top in the region in science and technology

On the surface, these goals may appear fairly generic. Underneath they show a regime coming to terms with the need for Iran’s foreign and domestic policies to emphasize placing the nation on stronger economic footing rather than provoking international isolation through costly adventures abroad (see Syria and Iraq). We may finally be seeing an emerging consensus between Khamenei’s vision for a largely autarkic “resistance economy” immune from sanctions pressure and President Rouhani’s desire for Iran to aggressively pursueforeign investment.

Khamenei’s plan emphasizes Iran’s need to upgrade its deterrent capabilities by boosting its ballistic missile power, defense technologies, and major weapon system production. The Supreme Leader also wants to significantly increase Iran’s cyber infrastructure. This is an Iran girding its self for the post-nuclear deal world.