Standing on a stage in Riyadh on June 29, 2020, U.S. Special Representative Brian Hook and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir spoke in favor of an extension of the arms embargo on the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Behind them on display were the piled remnants of the missiles and drones Iran has provided its Houthi allies for attacks on Saudi Arabia. Mr. Hook warned of an “emboldened” Iran should the embargo expire. Mr. Jubeir cited Iran’s continued aggression and support for terrorist groups. He then concluded his remarks with this quip: “Imagine, what if there was no embargo?”
It is perhaps, then, worth examining exactly what an end to the arms embargo on Iran would mean for world peace in general and for the already unstable Middle East in particular.
The arms embargo on Iran, a product of the now defunct Iran nuclear deal, will expire on Oct. 18 of this year. The usual suspects, Russia and China, eager to make money arming the ayatollahs, are clamoring for the United Nations to allow the arms embargo to expire. The United States and its key regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are pushing just as hard for an indefinite extension of that embargo.
Nothing has changed in regard to Iran’s desire to remake the Middle East in its image. Nothing has changed in regard to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups and Shia militia. We have hobbled Tehran in terms of denying it access to advanced weaponry, but we have not changed the regime or shifted its worldview.
Meanwhile, the revolutionary Islamic rulers of Iran, even hampered by sanctions and the arms embargo, have continued to spread chaos and destruction including such actions as:
• Iranian-armed and trained Houthis have carried out 1,659 attacks on civilian areas in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the war in Yemen, launching 318 Iranian-made ballistic missiles.
• Over the same time period, 371 drones have been launched into the Saudi Kingdom by the Houthis, and 64 explosive boats have been used to target commercial shipping in the Bab Al-Mandab and the Red Sea.
• In Iraq, Shia militia under Tehran’s direction have staged a series of attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
• Iran and its proxies have staged rocket attacks on Israel from Lebanon. Iran has also continued to upgrade Hezbollah’s weaponry and to provide it, in particular, with precision-guided munitions for use in future attacks on civilian targets in Israel.
• Iran has also continued its support of terrorist groups worldwide, its involvement with narcotics trafficking and its involvement with the pariah state of Venezuela.
Now imagine this regime that maintains such a level of malign activity, and that dedicates itself so intensely to destabilizing the Middle East, being armed with the latest weaponry China and Russia can supply.
The Chinese are already involved in discussions with Iran about an arrangement under which Chinese troops would be stationed in Iran and the Chinese would be able to buy Iranian oil at a discount. Under the agreement, China would also acquire basing rights in Iran and be poised to throttle the Western supply of oil from the Middle East.
At this time, however, Chinese actions pursuant to any agreement with Iran that violate the arms embargo would risk American reprisals and action by the United Nations. Freed of any such constraint, the scope of the arms sales China might ink with Tehran in exchange for Iranian oil could be staggering.
Iran’s air force, which now operates with 1980’s vintage technology, would suddenly be able to acquire advanced Chinese aircraft like the J-10 fighter. U.S. and coalition forces in the Persian Gulf might find themselves contending with Iranian forces operating Type-022 fast-attack catamarans, YJ-22 anti-ship cruise missiles, Yuan-class submarines, and FL-3000N/HHQ-10 shipboard air and missile defense systems. The entire balance of power in the critical waters surrounding Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would shift.
Russia has also made no secret of its desire to arm Tehran and has been signaling for some time its opposition to an extension of the embargo. Iran’s potential acquisitions include Russian Su-30 fighters, Yak-130 trainers and T-90 tanks. Iran has also expressed interest in buying Russia’s sophisticated S-400 air-defense system and the lethal Bastion coastal defense system. The Su-30 fighters in question can hit targets 3,000 kilometers away. The S-400 air defense system is a threat to even the most advanced American and Israeli aircraft.
Armed with Chinese and Russian advanced weaponry, Iran would not only be able to threaten American and coalition forces it would likely trigger an arms race in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia could not possibly sit by and watch the Iranian threat to its continued existence grow by the day. Neither could Israel ignore the implications for its own security and for its ability to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Dramatically-improved Iranian air defense systems would mean Israel would be compelled to act sooner rather than later to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities.
The implications of an end to the arms embargo also extend well beyond the Middle East. Arms delivered to Iran do not have to stay in that country. Advanced weapons newly acquired by Iranian forces would almost certainly migrate to Yemen, Lebanon, Venezuela, Afghanistan and Syria.
The arms embargo on Iran was predicated on that fact that the regime in Tehran was a threat to world peace. Nothing has changed. Iran does not seek accommodation. It is dedicated instead to the export of its version of radical, revolutionary, Islamic doctrine and the destruction of everyone and everything that stands in its way.
Even hampered by sanctions and subject to an arms embargo the ayatollahs remain highly dangerous. Turned loose to arm themselves with some of the most sophisticated weapons on the planet, they will become lethal. The results of ending the arms embargo will be catastrophic and felt worldwide, making it imperative that we maintain an embargo on all arms sales to Tehran. Indefinitely.
Imagining what the world would be like were the embargo to end is bad enough. Let’s not make it a reality.
• Sam Faddis, former CIA operations officer with experience in the conduct of intelligence operations in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe, is a senior analyst at Ravenna Associates, a strategic communications company. He is the author of “Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA” and, with Mike Tucker, “Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq.”