The upcoming expiration of an international arms embargo on Iran has left the United States and its allies in the Middle East uneasy, fearing that the seemingly unavoidable outcome in October could lead to a proliferation of weapons in the hands of Iran and its proxy groups across the region.
Even though an economically crippled Iran may not have extra cash to purchase sophisticated weapons, that can change if its economy revives or if the oil-rich country finds a supplier willing to sell arms for oil after the embargo, some experts say.
“The U.N. Security Council will not vote to extend the embargo,” Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said. “But it's possible the U.S. can convince Russia and China to hold off on any major arms sales to Iran.”
The level of concern appears to have increased with recent reports about a 25-year bilateral, multibillion-dollar trade deal being negotiated between Iran and China in defiance of the U.S. sanctions.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday in a news briefing that China would sell a weapons system to Iran after the October deadline.
"They have been working on it, waiting for this day, waiting for midnight on October 18th for this arms embargo to expire,” Pompeo said.
The Iran arms embargo dates to 2010 when the Security Council passed Resolution 1929 to punish Iran for enriching uranium and not granting full access to U.N. inspectors. It aims to prevent Iran from purchasing conventional armaments, such as tanks, and other dual-use materials, such as missiles and fighter jets that could also be used in a nuclear attack.
When Iran and major world powers in 2015 reached a nuclear deal — officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the Security Council passed Resolution 2231, which stipulated the arms embargo on Iran would expire in five years.
Iran argues that preserving the JCPOA, which limits its uranium enrichment, depends on lifting the embargo. Two of the Security Council veto powers, China and Russia, also oppose any extension.
“The game here is to isolate the U.S.,” Mark Katz, a senior Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council, said in a webinar last week. He added that China and Russia saw this as an opportunity that “they are not going to forgo.”
Alternatively, the U.S. recently threatened to trigger a provision in the JCPOA that is often referred to as “snapback” to restore all U.N sanctions on Iran.
The notion, which experts say will kill the JCPOA, was so controversial that even America’s long-term allies in Europe rejected it.
Despite their differences with the U.S., European powers have also voiced concerns about ending the ban on Iran’s ability to purchase weapons.
Similarly, Mideast nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, fear that if Iran acquires more weapons, it is expected to transfer some of them to its armed proxy groups such as Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“Despite the embargo, Iran seeks to provide weapons to terrorist groups, so what will happen if the embargo is lifted?” Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, said last month in Riyadh. “Iran will become more ferocious and aggressive.”
Udi Evental, a senior Israeli military expert and former colonel in the Israel Defense Forces, said lifting the embargo would “embolden” Iran to send more advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. The group shares a decadeslong bloody history with Israel.
“Iran is endeavoring to upgrade the quantity and quality of Hezbollah's military capabilities, with a special effort to provide it with precision-guided munitions and missiles,” he told VOA from Israel in an email.
Evental said Iran might also seek to purchase Russia’s advanced S-400 missile defense system.
Last week, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said he expected a Middle Eastern “arms race” to ensue as a result of lifting the embargo.
Some experts, however, doubt an economically struggling Iran is in a position to enter an arms race.
“Iran has no financial capabilities to trigger a regional arms race — definitely not in regard to conventional arms,” Robert Czulda, an Iran specialist at the University of Lodz, Poland, said.
“Potential procurement would be aimed at filling the most severe gaps in Iran’s conventional capabilities rather than significantly expanding Iran’s power,” he added.
Some analysts said Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states provide an established lucrative market that China and Russia would not want to jeopardize by selling arms to Iran. China, for instance, has established a drone factory in Saudi Arabia.
But there remains no guarantee that Russia and China will be dissuaded from selling weapons to Iran, Kirsten Fontenrose, a senior Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, said in the webinar.
She cited a similar occasion in which the Saudis sought Russian help to prevent Iran from sending Russian-made weapons to the Houthis.
“Russia entirely blew them off,” Fontenrose said.