A decade-long UN arms embargo on Iran that barred it from purchasing foreign weapons like tanks and fighter jets expired on Sunday as planned under its nuclear deal with world powers, despite objections from the United States.
While insisting it planned no “buying spree”, Iran can in theory now purchase weapons to upgrade military armaments dating back to before its 1979 Islamic Revolution and sell its own locally produced equipment abroad.
In practice, however, Iran’s economy remains crippled by broad-reaching US sanctions, and other nations may avoid arms deals with Tehran for fear of American financial retaliation.
A momentous day for the international community, which— in defiance of malign US efforts—has protected UNSC Res. 2231 and JCPOA.— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) October 17, 2020
Today's normalization of Iran’s defense cooperation with the world is a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region. pic.twitter.com/sRO6ezu4OO
The Islamic Republic heralded the end of the arms embargo as “a momentous day for the international community … in defiance of the US regime’s effort”.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has insisted it has re-invoked all UN sanctions on Iran via a clause in the nuclear deal it withdrew from in 2018, a claim ignored by the rest of the world.
“Today’s normalisation of Iran’s defence co-operation with the world is a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flatly rejected the expiration.
He said in a statement: “The United States is prepared to use its domestic authorities to sanction any individual or entity that materially contributes to the supply, sale, or transfer of conventional arms to or from Iran, as well as those who provide technical training, financial support and services, and other assistance related to these arms.
“For the past 10 years, countries have refrained from selling weapons to Iran under various UN measures.
“Any country that now challenges this prohibition will be very clearly choosing to fuel conflict and tension over promoting peace and security.”
The expiration of the arms embargo on Sunday was the proximate cause for the US decision last month to move forward with the so-called “snapback” of international sanctions in Iran. The Americans tried unsuccessfully to get the UN Security Council to extend the embargo but suffered a humiliating defeat when only one country on the 15-member panel supported it.
In response, the administration announced it had invoked “snapback” — a mechanism provided for in the Security Council resolution that enshrined the nuclear deal that allows any participant in the accord to restore UN sanctions if they determine Iran is not complying with its terms. But the rest of the council rejected US standing to trigger snapback, saying it had lost its right to do so when American President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal.
The United Nations banned Iran from buying major foreign weapon systems in 2010 amid tensions over its nuclear programme. An earlier embargo targeted Iranian arms exports.
The US Defence Intelligence Agency predicted in 2019 that, if the embargo ended, Iran was likely to try to purchase Russian Su-30 fighter jets, Yak-130 trainer aircraft and T-90 tanks.
Tehran may also try to buy Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system and its Bastian coastal defence missile system, the DIA said. China also could sell Iran arms.
Iran has long been outmatched by US-backed Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have purchased billions of dollars of advanced American weaponry. In response, Tehran turned towards developing locally-made ballistic missiles.
Iran has blasted Gulf Arab purchases of US-made defence equipment as “regrettably lucrative weapon deals” with some of those arms used in the ongoing war in Yemen. That conflict pits a Saudi-led coalition backing the country’s internationally recognised government against rebel forces backed by Iran.
The UN arms embargoes, however, did not stop Iran from sending weapons ranging from assault rifles to ballistic missiles to Yemen’s Houthi rebels. While Tehran denies arming the Houthis, Western governments and weapons experts have repeatedly linked Iranian arms to the rebels.
Six Gulf Arab nations that backed the extension of the arms embargoes noted arms shipments to Yemen in their objection to the resumption of any weapon sales to Iran.
They also mentioned in a letter to the UN Security Council that Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane in January and its navy accidentally killed 19 sailors in a missile strike during an exercise.
The UN also linked Iran to a 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s main crude oil refinery, though Tehran denies any links and Yemen’s rebel Houthis claimed responsibility.
Sunday also marked the end of UN travel bans on a number of Iranian military and paramilitary Revolutionary Guard members.
Tensions between Iran and the US reached fever pitch at the start of the year, when an American drone killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad.
Tehran retaliated with a ballistic missile attack on US forces in Iraq that injured dozens.
Meanwhile, Iran has steadily broken limits of the nuclear deal in an attempt to pressure Europe at salvaging the accord.
In recent months, provocations on both sides have slowed as President Donald Trump faces a re-election campaign against former vice president Joe Biden. Mr Biden has said he is willing to offer Iran “a credible path back to diplomacy” if Tehran returns to “strict compliance” with the deal.